A brief thought on violence

The shooting yesterday in Arizona was tragic. There are many people who are trying to place blame in several places. The shooter is clearly the one who should be blamed. It appears (from what has been published so far) that he may have some mental problems. And there may well be some blame to assign to those who stoked his hate and fears.

A few people have been quick to claim that the fault is that the shooter had a handgun.

I agree that guns, used carelessly or in the hands of idiots and criminals are a bad idea. But I am equally convinced, after a lifetime of working with law enforcement, the military, and the others, that the problem is not ownership or regulation of guns per se. So long as there is a minimum standard of competency and criminal background check made on those who purchase a weapon, it is probably not a problem. People who buy diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate (to make ANFO) are also dangerous, as are those who buy axes! Yet there are many, many legitimate purchases and uses of those every day.

The shooter in this recent case was determined and attacked at short range. Without a handgun he might have used a suicide bomb (to worse effect), or run his car into the crowd. Someone with strong intent will make use of whatever means may be available.

Currently, there are about 200 million firearms in private possession in the US, of which about 65 million are handguns. There were about 12,600 criminal gun-related deaths in the US in 2007 ( most recent detailed cdc.gov numbers) (and 2/3 of those are felon on felon). Let’s see that’s…. 12,600/200,000,000 == .000063, is .0063% percent of guns in the US involved in criminal deaths (actually, less than that because some guns accounted for multiple deaths).

From those same CDC figures, there were 41,000 drunk driving fatalities recorded, all of which were criminal (by definition). There may have been more as hit-and-runs and where the driver was not tested for alcohol, but we’ll stick with that number. The US DOT estimates there are 254 million registered vehicles in the US and we’ll assume the same number in 2007. Thus, 41,000/254,000,000 == .000161 … that’s at least 2.5 times the number of gunshot deaths! Holy Pinto, Batman! We should ban alcohol and automobiles right away! They’re a menace! It’s not guns you should worry about, but drunk people on the road — especially if you’re not a felon!

Or, let’s look at tobacco. In 2007, 438,000 people died from the effects of tobacco, including exposure to second-hand smoke. That’s 35 times as many fatalities as all firearms deaths in the US, yet the pressures to ban tobacco are hardly as strong.

The argument is that firearms are primarily used to threaten or hurt others, but that isn’t the case with tobacco or cars. That isn’t really accurate. Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above. Meanwhile, people know that tobacco is dangerous, and that drinking while driving can harm others. The nature of intent is thus not quite so clear.

People who aren’t around responsible users of firearms, and who haven’t been trained in their use tend to be skittish about them. That is understandable. The same is true about other things, such as corrosive chemicals, poisons, and explosives. Firearms aren’t toys. Neither is HCl nor cyanide nor C4 nor dynamite. They have their uses. They should be handed with care. Users should be trained. Their misuse should be punished. And there will be people who misuse them, especially people with mental problems. But as with many things in our society that are dangerous, controversial, or challenging, the temptation to ban that which we don’t understand because we fear it should be resisted — whether it is a firearm, the Koran, or somebody’s pink vibrating love toy. 🙂 Especially when the incidence of abuse is low, and there are identifiable positive uses (which I am not convinced is the case with tobacco, btw).

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5 Responses to “A brief thought on violence”

  1. charlesarthur Says:

    I’m sure it’s very satisfactory to write a blogpost where you can quote to affirm your prejudices, but I’d have thought someone as intelligent as yourself would take the opportunity to posit the possibility that their previous thinking is wrong, argue against it, and see how well they can break down their old thinking – in the form of thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

    Let me try, coming from the opposite perspective. Let me accept that ownership of guns should be allowed; that it’s only the very few who abuse that right.

    Fine. Well then, extend that right. Why does the US government get so snitty about ownership of radioactive materials? Isn’t it every American’s right to own as much uranium, plutonium, polonium, or whatever as they like? Didn’t the Founding Fathers have personal nuclear weapons in mind when they added that bit about “the right to bear arms”? If you allow the ownership of semi-automatic and automatic guns capable of killing multiple people who are foolish enough to be in the vicinity of someone with a grudge, or just poor control of a powerful object, then surely you must allow the ownership – concealed or not – of weapons-grade radioactives. It’s your right. Sod this nonsense about radiation in a public place. Only the irresponsible, and so undeserving of our sympathy, would carry such materials around without proper shielding. And you have something to protect you from would-be muggers and assailants. Or, indeed, hungry bears.

    No? Why ever not? Is it because the harm that could be caused is out of proportion to the benefits of allowing ownership?

    Let’s look at that CDC data. Top four causes of sudden early death: (1) cars (2) poisoning (of which 75% are suicides) (3) guns (4) falls.

    Not much to be done about (4) unless we can repeal the law of gravity, but I doubt even the Tea Party has its eyes on that one. Nor (2) since we have to allow that Drano and headache pills actually do have a peaceful use – cleaning drains, easing headaches – and that we shouldn’t ban things which are misused in opposition or orthogonally to their primary purpose. Drano is not sold as a suicide assist; it’s sold for cleaning drains.

    OK, so (1) cars. What the hell use are cars again? Oh, that’s right, personal transportation. So drunk drivers don’t actually go out on sprees looking for people to run down, you say? They’re overconfident because of the depressant effects of alcohol? Cars have a primary use that is beneficial to the wider economy? We might have to make an allowance for them. Drunk driving is still wrong. A car could still be used as a weapon. You just don’t hear of many cases where it happens. At all.

    And so to guns. You wrote: “Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above.”

    Okey-dokey, used for hunting. That’s why the murder rate is so high in Oakland and New York – damn trigger-happy hunters seeing a bear at every street corner.

    Wait, no? It’s target shooters whose weapons slip out of their pocket?
    No?

    The argument about “many guns are never used to threaten another person” is so weak I’m astonished you attempt to make it. Are you seriously suggesting that 4+ million guns are sold in the US each year to people who want to go hunting and shoot targets? Really? Or might it be that they hope to persuade potentially harmful people not to threaten them, the buyers?

    In which case the prime purpose of a gun is, yes, to threaten harm, and by doing so (you hope) deter it. A gun is a quintessentially different tool from a hammer, or even an axe, or fertiliser. Hammers and axes have primary uses that are not aimed at humans. Fertiliser is for, well, fertilising.

    By contrast a gun is a fulfilment of every child’s God complex, to induce effect at a distance with the minimum of effort. Target shooters and hunters are actually the people who have gone beyond that level, who understand exactly why they use a gun. I’d contend that the vast majority of gun buyers and owners don’t truly know, psychologically, why they’re making the purchasing decision; they just know it makes them feel good (even if it might make their partners nervous).

    I would bother dealing with the cigarette arguments if there were reports of people going on killing sprees with cigarettes, but they seem rare for some reason. As for suicide bombings, I think there have been, what, a handful of attempts in the US, all unsuccessful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism_in_the_United_States). If you want to replace gun shops with suicide vest shops, that seems to me a good idea; at least it would be a more honest description of what can happen from owning a gun.

    Notwithstanding all the above, I recognise that the US’s longstanding policy on gun ownership means that it is nigh on impossible to alter the equation of gun ownership. You could try banning bullets, but they’re even easier to smuggle than guns. (In the UK, you can be arrested for carrying live ammunition. The UK really is hot on firearms control.)

    But even with that said, to pretend that guns are somehow “safe” because they kill fewer people than cars only indicates that the debate has ceased to be a debate; instead it’s reached the religious level, where idees fixes have completely taken over the minds of adherents and detractors alike, and cannot be budged without the most enormous effort of will. To ask gun adherents to imagine an America without the Second Amendment is like asking a Christian to imagine a world without their imaginary God. From what I’ve seen, there’s a relatively large overlap there. Which ought to give pause for thought. Dogma is dangerous wherever it’s found.

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    • spaf Says:

      Well, I don’t think you read what I wrote, because you have put forward arguments on issues I never raised.

      First, your line of arguments about fissile materials is specious. Not only is there no way for an individual to deploy them, the training, equipment and cost to safely and properly handle radioactive materials is arguably beyond that of any individual. My comments were about being properly trained, with appropriate constraints for some limited items. I did not argue that it was for all items and all possible weapons.

      Second, you raise some issue about the “Founding Fathers,” presumably to argue 2nd amendment issues. If you look at what I wrote, nowhere did I mention that nor did I raise that as an issue. I also made no mention of bears — perhaps you have been watching too much Colbert?

      You cite a high incidence of gun deaths in Oakland and New York. That is interesting because those are two places that are in states among those with the strictest gun laws in the nation. Hmmm. If guns were as dangerous as you say, then people would be dying at much higher rates in places such as Florida, Arizona, Alaska, Indiana and other states that have either “must issue” gun license laws, or no license laws. Actually, those states tend to have lower per capita rates. Most gun violence is felon-on-felon, and it doesn’t really matter what the laws are there because the drug dealers and gang members don’t really care.

      Yes, the UK has been strong on firearms control, but it is changing and they are having more problems there with time. More police are now armed all the time, and more criminals are committing armed crimes. They also have a great deal of trouble with knife violence that we don’t see reported here in the states — much more than here. But look at Switzerland or Israel where nearly every household (or male) is armed and crime is also low. It isn’t the guns — it is the social structure. The UK is often pointed to as an example, but it is a trite example unless one does a more careful cross-sociological study.

      I was not advocating for fully automatic weapons. I was not advocating for high capacity magazines. I believe that there should be stronger licensing and registration requirements than most states. But I do not believe that handguns are to blame or should be banned. And your arguments about radioactive materials, bears, and projecting “God complexes” on people, and some of the other nonsense you pulled out for your comments are just silly — and not responsive to my post.

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  2. James Abrams Says:

    I tried to leave this comment on Charles ARthur’s site, but his WordPress install kept returning ‘Forbidden’. So much for the skills of the Guardian’s ‘Technology Editor’.

    Here is the comment in full:

    I’m sure it’s very satisfactory to write a blogpost where you can quote to affirm your prejudices, but I’d have thought someone as intelligent as yourself would take the opportunity to posit the possibility that their previous thinking is wrong, argue against it, and see how well they can break down their old thinking – in the form of thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

    This doesnt add anything to the argument; calling the writer prejudiced is an Ad Hominem attack. Not a good start.

    Let me try, coming from the opposite perspective. Let me accept that ownership of guns should be allowed; that it’s only the very few who abuse that right.

    You cannot abuse a right. You can abuse other people, but rights are inalienable, fixed, and do not disappear or spring into being depending on your actions.

    Fine. Well then, extend that right. Why does the US government get so snitty about ownership of radioactive materials?

    This is the classic red herring about owning nuclear weapons and guns. It is just that, a logical fallacy in the red herring class. It has been debunked elsewhere, so I will not repeat its refutation here.

    Let’s look at that CDC data. Top four causes of sudden early death: (1) cars (2) poisoning (of which 75% are suicides) (3) guns (4) falls.

    Not much to be done about (4) unless we can repeal the law of gravity, but I doubt even the Tea Party has its eyes on that one. Nor (2) since we have to allow that Drano and headache pills actually do have a peaceful use – cleaning drains, easing headaches – and that we shouldn’t ban things which are misused in opposition to or orthogonally to their primary purpose. Drano is not sold as a suicide assist; it’s sold for cleaning drains.

    Your arguments in this section are more red herrings; none of the items in this list are applicable to guns (or any other object) but I will take one example apart.

    When you say, “we have to allow that Drano and headache pills actually do have a peaceful use”, you destroy your own argument; guns are used mainly for sport and defense, just as Drano is used mainly for clearing drains. Drano is sometimes used to kill in a way that we find to be immoral (suicide, poisoning), and so are guns. As objects, they are indistinguishable where your right to own them is concerned.

    Just because you personally do not like the idea of any object being made available to the public, this does not remove the rights of others.

    And so to guns. You wrote: “Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above.”

    Okey-dokey, used for hunting. That’s why the murder rate is so high in Oakland and New York – damn trigger-happy hunters seeing a bear at every street corner.

    Your statement about the murder rate in Oakland is a red herring when arguing against the fact of the reasons why people own guns.

    Furthermore, the number of guns in circulation and the murder rate (I presume you mean murder by gunshot wound) have an inverse relationship; the lower the number of guns in the hands of the citizens, the higher the rate of murders by gunshot wound.

    Wait, no? It’s target shooters whose weapons slip out of their pocket?
    No?

    Sarcasm is not a valid form of argumentation; this is why the Professor called your comment ‘silly’. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to leave out the sarcasm and the simplistic, rehashed logical fallacies from your pieces.

    The argument about “many guns are never used to threaten another person” is so weak I’m astonished you attempt to make it. Are you seriously suggesting that 4+ million guns are sold in the US each year to people who want to go hunting and shoot targets? Really? Or might it be that they hope to persuade potentially harmful people not to threaten them, the buyers?

    You have not explained why the assertion is weak; statistically, the number of guns in circulation have never been used to commit any crime whatsoever. This is a fact.

    In which case the prime purpose of a gun is, yes, to threaten harm, and by doing so (you hope) deter it. A gun is a quintessentially different tool from a hammer, or even an axe, or fertiliser. Hammers and axes have primary uses that are not aimed at humans. Fertiliser is for, well, fertilising.

    Here you are mischaracterizing the purpose of guns; guns do not have a purpose, other than to shoot bullets or blanks. The choice of target is that of the owner. A gun is in no way ‘quintessentially different’ to a hammer, which can be used to propel a nail into wood, smash a window or a skull; once again, it is capable of many uses. The primary use of any object is an inextricably bound result of the will of the owner of an object; murderers are willed to murder. They can murder with guns, hammers, and fertilizer. What you are suggesting is that because there are murderers, people should not have rights. This is unacceptable to clear thinking and rational people.

    By contrast a gun is a fulfilment of every child’s God complex, to induce effect at a distance with the minimum of effort. Target shooters and hunters are actually the people who have gone beyond that level, who understand exactly why they use a gun. I’d contend that the vast majority of gun buyers and owners don’t truly know, psychologically, why they’re making the purchasing decision; they just know it makes them feel good (even if it might make their partners nervous).

    None of this has anything to do with your right to own an object. Furthermore the same argument of causing harm at a distance could be used to outlaw the sale of fertilizer.

    This is not a matter of the psychology of people who want to own guns; this is about the right to own property, and nothing more.

    I would bother dealing with the cigarette arguments if there were reports of people going on killing sprees with cigarettes, but they seem rare for some reason. As for suicide bombings, I think there have been, what, a handful of attempts in the US, all unsuccessful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism_in_the_United_States). If you want to replace gun shops with suicide vest shops, that seems to me a good idea; at least it would be a more honest description of what can happen from owning a gun.

    More sarcasm and red herrings. It must be said however that your ‘harm at a distance’ argument could be invoked here, and indeed, has been the spur for the ban on smoking; ‘second hand smoke’. By this argument, internal combustion engine cars should also be ‘banned’ since they pollute the air and poison people with their exhaust; mass poisoning on a nation-wide scale.

    Notwithstanding all the above, I recognise that the US’s longstanding policy on gun ownership means that it is nigh on impossible to alter the equation of gun ownership. You could try banning bullets, but they’re even easier to smuggle than guns. (In the UK, you can be arrested for carrying live ammunition. The UK really is hot on firearms control.)

    The US does not have a ‘policy’ on gun ownership; the country is founded upon the principle that it is needed. See my final point.

    But even with that said, to pretend that guns are somehow “safe” because they kill fewer people than cars only indicates that the debate has ceased to be a debate; instead it’s reached the religious level, where idees fixes have completely taken over the minds of adherents and detractors alike, and cannot be budged without the most enormous effort of will.

    The idea that an object can be safe or unsafe is a product of the UK’s ‘Health and Safety’ culture that has completely destroyed some people’s ability to reason.

    No object can be given the attribute of ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’. A gun, like a hammer, is inert; it has no will of its own or potential for action outside action by human agent. The same goes for human agents; in the UK, they, in their irrational desire to create a completely safe country, have tried to create databases of ‘safe people’ (Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS), CRB checks); of course, it can never completely protect anyone because crime springs from intent, and what a person is now is no guarantee of what they could become. But I digress; objects like guns, knives, ice, water, matches are not inherently dangerous, and the fact that some people use objects for evil cannot be used as a pretext for suppressing the rights of man.

    To ask gun adherents to imagine an America without the Second Amendment is like asking a Christian to imagine a world without their imaginary God. From what I’ve seen, there’s a relatively large overlap there. Which ought to give pause for thought. Dogma is dangerous wherever it’s found.

    This is off subject. People who are religious might discount all of your logic because you are so flippant. Its not funny, insightful, helpful or informative, so why do it?

    The second American Revolution is coming, and this time, people are going to flee the UK to America not to get away from the decedent of King George III but to get away from the collectivist tyranny gate-kept by people like you.

    The complete contempt for people’s rights that you so gleefully champion is what will drive (and according to an FOIA release, has driven 16,000 high finance workers out of the UK) millions of people out of the UK who are thirsty for freedom.

    You do not have any rational, logical arguments against the ownership of guns. Your type of thinking cannot produce them. That much is clear. You simply do not like the idea of people having them, and so… that’s it.

    Thankfully, in a republic, what a group of journalists thinks is not enough to strip people of their rights. This is the core idea behind the creation of America; that it should not be a democracy, but instead, a place where everyone has liberty, no matter what it is they do with themselves and their own property.

    This is what the second American Revolution will restore; freedom from the threat of the irrational masses.

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  3. Spaf Says:

    My apologies to a few people who left comments that I have not gotten around to approving thru to publishing until today.

    After the post, I had a child fall very ill — involving multiple trips to the hospital, I fell ill, and classes started. All things in the real world that had higher priority than this blog.

    My daughter is recovering, and I am still not well, but I’m trying to get caught up.

    Like


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