Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Gun Policy, Reasoning From The Gut

Many folks discuss access to firearms as an issue for legislative action, but few of these seem to consider solving their concerns in a manner consistent with the Constitution's provisions for changing parts of the Constitution people would like changed (about which more has appeared here before). They're not reasoning from the law, even if they try to reason from crime statistics (though there's some debate as to which side of the controversy has crime statistics on its side). Both sides seem to reason largely from the gut.

In keeping with the tradition of reasoning from the gut, I thought it worth considering the stark comparison of two recent crimes in the news: one that was immediately picked up as a gun-control news event, and one that wasn't. Let's start with the one that wasn't.

No Gun Present – Just Smoking, Murdered Corpse
Melissa Ketunuti's dog walker found her dead body bound and smoldering where it sat inside her Pennsylvania home, bound hand and foot. The police initially reckoned the death a strangling. No motive is known and police have no suspects. The pediatrician, described as "very pleasant, very nice, very friendly and quiet," was often seen on long runs alone or returning home with groceries. "I'm struggling for the logic to why my friend is dead," related a neighbor when interviewed. "I'm sick with this."

Guns weren't an evident factor in causing the death. The reports on the murder also didn't seem to considered guns a factor in the failure either to avert tragedy or to injure and identify the crime's perpetrator. But don't most people just hurt themselves with firearms? Maybe not. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, an Italian immigrant confronted with an attacker at home was able to drive him off by shooting him twice, which made him easy for police to identify when he sought medical treatment. But that's not actually the second news story I noticed. That one, I just stumbled across while looking for a link to the story I actually saw myself. That one's even more stark.

Terrified Novice With A Revolver Saves Twins
In Georgia, a mother of 9-year-old twins responded to an unexpected knock and furious repeated doorbell-ringing not by opening the door, but by calling her husband. While still on the phone with his wife, the husband called 9-1-1 and requested help be sent immediately to the house. He remained on the phone while the man at the door gave up on the bell, broke it down, and with a crowbar in his hand pursued his wife and children to the crawlspace door behind which they cowered in fear. Advised by her husband to retreat to safety, the woman had taken her children to an upstairs crawlspace where they hid, while her husband both narrated her story to the 9-1-1 operator and reassured his wife that the family's .38 revolver would work in real life exactly as it had at the range less than a month before when she was first introduced to the weapon, and for the first time instructed in its operation. When the mother saw a large man with the crowbar open the door to the crawlspace, she opened fire. Police believe that the same intruder left another home when confronted by its occupant, leaving one to speculate that he may have been emboldened by her reasonably fearful retreat and her preference to seek concealment rather than confrontation while in charge of children.

Five of six shots hit the intruder, and she was out of ammunition. She bluffed that she would shoot again if he got up, and fled while he remained prone. Sheriff Joe Chapman was interviewed and appeared in some web videos whose links elude the author. In those interviews, he opined that the woman's weapon was potentially all that stood between his department looking into a botched home invasion by a known felon, and his department spending resources investigating a triple-homicide with no leads.

Damn Lies and Statistics
While it's common to hear that people should not have guns because they're more likely to be hurt with them than to use them for effective self-defense, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper that suggests otherwise. The authors of the CDC paper estimated that in 1994 firearms were repeatedly relied upon by residents fearing home intruders. In 503,481 reported incidents, an intruder was seen by a resident who retrieved a firearm in response to the intruder; in 497,646 incidents, intruders reportedly became aware of the armed resident and were scared away by the firearm. It would be nice to compare those numbers to home-invasion injuries, but "home invasion" statistics seem to be under attack from detractors who complain about everything from the definition of "home invasion" to the sources of some of the purported numbers. Comparing these numbers to incidents in which individuals were injured in a home invasion is therefore difficult.  But in 1994 firearms deaths totaled fewer than 40,000 – but that's all firearms deaths, including drug-wars on the streets, suicides, and other circumstances having no apparent connection with the practicality of self-help home defense.

People who argue that police should do the protecting for everyone seem to be missing a few key factors in common with most of the nation's homicide – namely, the absence of police on-hand to break up the conflict. The concurrent call to 9-1-1 in Georgia provides anecdotal evidence that intruders can reach residents with a crowbar faster than police can reach one's home. And the Supreme Court has made clear in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Soc. Svcs. that police have no duty to rescue citizens from the risks of others, even when they have actual knowledge of the risk and the ability to act. To understand how far that goes, make sure to read the dissenting opinion.

The fact that firearm use for home defense is an order of magnitude more common than all firearms deaths combined strongly suggests that the dangers of being injured with one's own weapon may be vastly oversold in comparison to the apparent protective benefit of access to firearms for home defense.

Interestingly, most individuals don't have access to firearms for self-defense; many firearm owners, despite having ownership of a weapon, lack practical access to a firearm for home defense. Some folks have noticed that unarmed victims are a common element in many mass-killings, and have suggested that arming more people (trained people) might be the answer, and noted that increasing firearm availability to law-abiding citizens seems not to have had an adverse impact on Ohio, despite the increase in awareness of firearms and the increased frequency of firearm-related news stories. But that's the problem: people's hearts are driven by news stories, anecdotes, and fear. Not data. Maybe opposition to firearms is purely philosophical. If so, its most ardent advocates presumably expect us to learn to live as a disarmed population subject to the will of an armed state, because it's morally better than the risks attendant freedom to defend one's family. If so, it's clear based on the reasoning in D.C. v. Heller that we need to formally repeal the Second Amendment.

We can't do otherwise and still pretend to live in a nation governed by the rule of law.

Policy By Press Release
In reaction to news about firearms violence, the public is frequently sold proposals like those to limit access to rifles that look like they might be used by the military. (The definition of "assault rifle" in the Clinton-era ban turned on things like whether the rifle's stock was plastic or not, a factor largely irrelevant to the person on the end with the hole that expels the projectile. And how many people are placed in greater danger when a rifle has a bayonet clip, and can hold a light beneath its barrel?)  While this kind of thing may make for a great press release, what actual effect does it have on homicides? According to the FBI, more people are killed annually with hammers and clubs than with rifles in the United States, something to think about when pooh-poohing the utility of carry-sized firearms as a potential asset for self-defense. In fact, twice as many are killed barehanded than with rifles in a given year. So-called "assault weapon" bans target headlines, not homicides.

The firearms overwhelmingly used in homicide are the exact class – handguns – urged by some Second-Amendment-friendly gun control proponents as the limit of what the Second Amendment should permit civilians.

To get sensible firearms policy, people need data rather than ad campaigns. We've had ad campaigns – including a longstanding meme that gun control is advocated largely by Washington elites who can afford to – and actually do – employ armed guards for their own protection. Whether we should care whether this means they're hypocrites is, of course, completely different than whether we should accept or reject particular policies. To secure good policy, first we need to secure good data.

The press release, we've all seen mastered. And we've had enough of it.

Real Regulation Now: Test It In Your Own Jurisdiction
Guess what Americans can do right now, with little concern about offending the Constitution and no need to lobby Congress, to improve their situation with respect to firearms regulation? Local law. People who advocate restrictions can experiment locally, and show the world the effect of their proposals. Better yet, they can live with the proposals in the states in which they live. Unfortunately, people who love their local law still seem bent on having Congress involve itself with nationwide regulation before the jury is back from deliberation. Why not do some real analysis before demanding others accept our pet proposals?

Cars Kill: Why Not Regulate Them For Real?
In that vein, the author proposes to move the needle on premature death in the United States by introducing meaningful competence testing for persons seeking licenses to operate motor vehicles. More people die in the United States at the hands of incompetent or intoxicated operators of motor vehicles than die from firearms every year. In the late '80s, there was even a period in which the annual deaths from auto fatalities eclipsed the entire death toll of the whole Vietnam war. Keeping people from operating vehicles without demonstrating professional-grade competence would go a long way toward moving them to treat their dangerous vehicles as a privilege rather than a right, and would lead to the assignment of appropriate social value to the license to operate such vehicles safely in a civilized society. Those who can't obtain licenses for large, dangerous vehicles may have to content themselves with public transportation, bicycles, or small vehicles whose operator ratings are easier to obtain. On the upside, think of the thousands of teens and college kids who won't be killed because they were loosed unprepared on a public that can't protect them from themselves.

States might put up big signs on their Interstate highways, warning drivers that major interstate arteries are available to out-of-state bozos who haven't passed a test meeting the state's reciprocity standards. Inside neighborhoods, we could be safe in the certainty that all drivers will have qualifications sufficient to maintain the public safety on the roads. Violators would have their cars (or the remains thereof) auctioned to fund enforcement.

Don't you feel safer already?

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