The Gun Control Primer
By Ken Young
I have spent a lifetime studying the gun control issue in the United States of America. Two sides have formed, and neither has it right. In fact, it is impossible for America to get it right because neither side can afford to give an inch to the other.
People ask about this, so I invest some of my time explaining the issues. Then they tell their incredible solution to all gun problems. Most of these solutions would have the opposite effect from what was intended. They didn't listen to a word and I have just wasted half an hour of my life.
This is the short version, broken into short topics, typed in for you to ignore. It doesn't take either side, it looks at the issue analytically from the outside. It is my experience that most people's minds are already made up on this issue; Any attempt to persuade them one way or the other is futile.
The two sides
The arch-typical gun-control activist lives in a city or suburb, is reasonably secure, and is politically liberal. She doesn't need a gun and doesn't want any people or animals killed by guns or war. This individual knows someone who lost someone they know to a gun. This is a large and growing demographic, Americans have been migrating from the country to the city since the '30's.
The arch-typical pro-gun activist was raised in the country and is politically conservative. He is from a culture where people take care of their own problems. While the city police can respond in 5 minutes, the country sheriff can't. This individual knows people who rely on their guns to protect their livestock and property, and may have done so himself. He bristles at the idea that a government in a city far away that doesn't understand his problems might restrict his weapons. This is a politically powerful but shrinking demographic.
Another interesting demographic is the person who lives in the inner city and does not feel secure. This individual knows someone who used or needed a gun for self-defense. He maintains the weapon he feels he needs regardless of its legality. This is a growing demographic, but has not exercised much political power outside of Florida.
The main issues in America
The main issues of contention are crime, gun accidents, and self-defense. There are other issues, such as hunting and the militia, but we argue over the three main issues most. The other issues will fall into place if the main issues are decided upon by society. They are treated in detail below.
Just a reminder: you are not society and you do not make its decisions. Neither do I.
Criminals use guns to commit crimes. Interestingly, most guns used in crimes were acquired through illegal means. The two most common means are "straw man" purchases (someone who can buy guns legally does so and then resells them to someone who can't), and gun theft.
Further restricting the type of guns that can be legally owned will reduce the effectiveness of the guns available for criminal activity and self-defense by a tiny measure. This would have to be done against the wishes of the people who want guns. It is lot of trouble for very little return, but is the method of choice by anti-gun organizations.
Banning private gun ownership entirely opens a different can of worms. Guns would be less available to criminals of all types, but prohibition and the war on drugs tell us a lucrative gun trade would spring up to supply American criminals with guns to go with their drugs. Since gangs would be importing illegal guns, armed criminals would be using military pistols and sawed off shotguns in addition to small caliber handguns. The net effect is a smaller number of better-armed criminals, and unarmed victims. This approach would be strongly resisted by a large segment of the population, but most of the population is ignorant of these issues.
Most studies done in prisons show that the security system that deters criminals the most is an armed victim. On the other hand, if they know where you keep the gun they will come for it. Displaying your gun over the fireplace will make you much less safe.
Self-defense studies unanimously show that the deadlier the weapon, the more successful the victim will be at self-defense. Guns outperform knives and baseball bats.
Real numbers on self-defense rates are impossible to come by. Most successful self-defense is performed by showing the gun, saying "I've got a gun", or the distinctive sound of chambering a round. This is rarely reported, there is a perceived risk having the gun taken away. People who just used a gun to defend themselves are unwilling to risk losing it. Also, many males consider the encounter over and wouldn't call the police unless the perpetrator comes back. And finally, when the police are called, the incident is usually not written up as a gun incident unless someone gets shot or charged for misbehaving with a gun. Even though these numbers are not available, both sides try very hard to estimate them. The rate is about 20 undocumented defenses to each documented one (a 5% report rate).
The report rate is an estimate that cannot be proven. It varies from place to place, but is at least 3% and no more than 9%. The 5% rate uses the broadest definition of using a firearm for self-defense: The victim had a firearm and used it for self-defense (no shots need be fired).
Many Americans are using guns and other weapons to protect themselves. This happens in rural areas and inner cities the most.
Gun accidents are not a statistically important cause of death or injury in America. But try to tell that to somebody who lost a loved one.
There are many types of accidents. Gun users have accidental discharges. Children find guns and play with them. People mistakenly shoot the wrong person at night believing they are defending themselves.
The gun control side claims that with fewer guns available there will be fewer accidents. And they are right. This has to be balanced against the fact that there will also be fewer successful self-defenses. Whether banning guns protects the innocent is difficult to prove.
The gun rights side claims that people who want to save lives should focus on something where progress could be made, like medicine or automobiles. And they are right too.
Hunting is an American tradition, but is not constitutionally protected. Hunters want to hunt, and most of them want to hunt with guns. They are opposed by the anti-gun groups and the anti-hunting groups.
Hunting can be treated as a hobby with certain exceptions. Farmers and ranchers need to keep the vermin & predators down. Hunting is necessary for the people living in the Alaskan bush. Wildlife management relies extensively on hunters.
America has large wild spaces, and its wildlife needs to be managed one way or another. If not, herds of deer would devour crops, wolves & pumas would roam the streets, and so forth. This management is performed by state Fish & Game agencies, which control wildlife by issuing hunting licenses. Overpopulated areas get more licenses, and underpopulated areas get none. Hunters pay for the licenses, and the agencies are self-funding. Without hunting, people must be hired to shoot or poison large animals. Small animals are easier to manage with traps & poison. They are often managed by animal control agencies. Hunters were historically the ecologists in America, but the mantle has passed to the ecology movement.
The original bill of rights (the first 10 amendments of the Constitution) were given in order of importance. The most important right to the founding fathers was freedom of religion, press, and speech. The next most important right to them was the right to bear arms.
The 2nd amendment: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The founding father's intent is quite clear: There should be a well-equipped militia and the people who compose it should have guns. A few vocal anti-gun organizations try to twist the meaning of the 200-year-old text. They interpret the archaic usage of the word "regulated" to mean "restrict" rather than "equipped", or to twist the archaic use of commas to say it only guarantees a government militia. Gun control must be done within the framework of the Constitution. Banning or licensing private weapon ownership requires a Constitutional change.
The modern militia is composed of the reserves of the federal armed forces, a national guard for each state, some small private militias, and widespread private gun ownership. The Reserves and National Guard fulfill the founding father's desire that no foreign power can conqueror us from without. Widespread gun ownership ensures their desire that no oppressive government could arise within.
If the Constitution were taken literally in both word and intent, you would be able to buy anti-tank missiles in your hardware store (next to the bailing wire). So why not? The ownership of certain weapons is restricted by law. For example, in the 1930's organized crime made high profile use of silencers and Tommy guns. Congress decided that public good would best be served if a license were required for them. Congress also requires a license for high explosives, artillery, anti-tank missiles, concealed weapons, and so forth. The Supreme Court has ruled these laws do not violate the Constitution.
Congressional scholars agree that certain types of gun control would violate the Constitution, no matter how desirable they are. Banning private ownership of some or all types of weapons is an infringement. Licensing all guns or listing gun owners is also an infringement. Prohibiting federal, state, or private militias is forbidden.
The history of guns and gun control in America
The early European settlers showed up with matchlocks for hunting and self-defense. They needed their guns desperately for both purposes. Local and private militias provided almost all defense services. The English settlers survived their early wars with the Indians, but with heavy casualties.
As the colonies grew, agriculture developed until cities could be sustained without hunting. Since most people lived in the countryside, hunting remained important. With parliament and the king so far away, local government was important.
However, the colonies began to chafe under the abuses of their distant government (read the Declaration of Independence for details). Fearing the possibility of rebellion, England instituted restrictive gun control. This wasn't a problem in the secure cities, but most of the population lived in the country. They needed their guns to eat, and death or capture at the hands of Indians was a real threat. These and other oppressions drove the English colonies to rebel, and the American revolutionary war was on.
The Americans fought for independence with a combination of local militias and the "continental army", which had many characteristics of a national militia.
These experiences gave our founding fathers an appreciation for the importance of freedoms, especially freedom of the press and the right to bear arms. It also showed them how fast a good government can go bad without local militias to hold it accountable.
Advances in firearms technology in the early 1900's led to licenses for some types of weapons (like explosives and machineguns). Migration from the country to secure cities and suburbs in the late 1900's led to restrictions for concealed carry permits, restricting certain weapons, and so forth.
The history of gun control in the world
Legal controls on weapons are as old as laws themselves. History is full of weapon control examples. Most of them relate to ruling people against their will, but others relate to weapons carry restrictions in large secure cities in peaceful times.
Machivelli wrote a classic piece on weapons control in his instruction to two monarchs in a book called "The Prince". In short, always let your own people have weapons. They might rise up to your defense if another ruler attacks you. Always disarm a conquered principality, in case the people there rise up against you.
Fidel Castro and the other communist rulers are a classic example of how to subjugate your own people. After taking power, he disarmed the militias that put him there. Then he slowly subjugated his people. As long as he keeps the generals happy he can rule securely.
History shows that gun control legislation is repealed when security degrades. Florida and El Salvador are examples of this.
Gun control and the pillars of society
Like it or not, America is stuck with private gun ownership. Every society sits on certain pillars. If you kick one of the pillars out you don't know what will come falling down. In America those pillars are freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms.
Attempts to remove any of those pillars would be disruptive and have major unintended consequences. A de-facto gun ban without altering the Constitution would prove disastrous. What Constitution guaranteed right would be next? Changing the Constitution is much safer, but still fraught with peril. Prohibition of alcohol required a Constitutional amendment, and when the unexpected consequences arose, canceling it required another amendment. If guns are to be banned, they must be banned carefully.
Other countries can or have banned guns, but they can't touch the pillars of their own society. France can ban guns, but can't infringe upon equality between men. England can ban guns, but can't infringe upon the rule of law. In the past America has made men unequal and has suspended habeas corpus, but those weren't pillars in American society.
The Bible and gun control
The Old Testament required the people of God to have a militia. Most able-bodied men had to join, and were responsible for keeping their own weapons. The Bible only refers to weapon controls as a burden placed upon the people of God by foreign oppressors.
Two of Jesus's 12 disciples carried swords, apparently with his permission. One was St. Peter, who He placed in charge of His church. However, the one time the sword was used, Jesus told Peter "Put that away, whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword!"
The end of the matter
Gun control is a sociological issue. Banning this weapon or that, banning all of them, or selling anti-tank missiles in hardware stores won't solve much. The real issue is that many people shouldn't have weapons. Some of them will strive to get weapons no matter what. Society is better off if trustworthy people have arms because there are bad men, foreign armies, and people who want power. There will always be tragedies, but this minimizes them. Knowing who is trustworthy is the difficulty.
Most people miss this. There are two principles here. One is that some people shouldn't have guns. The other is that we are all safer if certain people do have guns.
The anti-gun people will ironically create more tragedies and make themselves less safe if they succeed in making guns illegal. The pro-gun people know that certain people shouldn't have guns, but they are fighting for the right of trustworthy people to own guns. They don't dare give an inch because the gun control organizations are too powerful. If they allow some people to lose their guns then all people will lose their guns. Neither side is able to solve the problem.
Another issue is government oversight over who may own guns. Government control over who can own guns is unconstitutional. The next step is for only people who support the powers in office to own guns. The founding fathers saw this and wrote the 2nd amendment. If there is to be any effort to restrict gun ownership to trustworthy people, government must be forbidden to decide who is trustworthy.
The Seattle study and how to lie with numbers
People, books, and speeches unrelated to gun control cite the Seattle study as an example of how to lie with numbers. The claim is that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder.
The study was done in a city with a high suicide rate and most of the deaths were suicides. Remove the suicides and a gun in the house is twice as likely to kill an occupant as an intruder. Since most self-defenses aren't reported, the same data can be interpreted to say a gun in the home is 10 times as likely to be used to protect the family than to be involved in an accident or domestic violence.
The pro-gun side could probably do their own study in a high-crime rural area and come up with numbers indicating a gun is over 100 times more likely to defend the family and their property than to be involved in an accident. It's a matter of picking the demographics and phrasing the question correctly.
The vast majority of gun deaths have been suicides for as long as these numbers have been tracked. American men prefer guns and their women prefer pills. Guns have a high rate of successful suicides. Attempts to ban the most successful forms of suicide have their own risks; Less successful forms are more likely to maim their victim. An unsuccessful pill suicide often causes liver damage, possibly liver failure requiring a transplant, and possibly brain damage. The most successful form of suicide seems to be certain asphyxiation/drug combinations.
The ownership of certain weapons is restricted by law and this is enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms (BATF). It is part of the Treasury department.
Hiram Maxim developed the silencer so he could shoot rats and other vermin on his (rural) property without disturbing the neighbors. His silencers were sold in hardware stores with the other gun accessories.
The federal government has declared that codes and encoded messages are a weapon of war so they can regulate codes, prevent their export, and prosecute the international transmission of coded messages. Declaring codes as weapons puts them under the protection of the second amendment. The right of Americans own encryption software and send coded messages is therefore guaranteed by the Constitution (subject to reasonable restrictions).
Switzerland & Israel
Some countries have a universal militia, most young men are required to serve in the military and keep guns thereafter. These countries are NOT the United States, they have a different culture. What works well for them may not work well for us.
El Salvador & the Los Angeles Riots:
People become desperate for guns when their security is at risk. Here are two examples.
During the LA riots some shopowners protected their stores with guns. The unprotected stores were looted. Angelenos were desperate to buy handguns during and after the three nights of rioting, but were frustrated by the state 2-week wait. They were NOT happy about this.
El Salvador recently experienced an insurgency. One feature of this was well-armed gangs kidnapping at will. Since the gangs could get any guns they wanted, El Salvador removed most gun restrictions from the general population. This helped curb the kidnappings.
Morgan Hill pumas
I live in Morgan Hill, California right now. Hunting of mountain lions has been banned for some time, and firing guns is illegal in the county. The mountain lions are overpopulating and enter the city at night to eat pets. Sometimes a lion is still in town at dawn and the police are summoned. They shoot the cat if it endangers lives, so most of the lions are shot. We call lone early morning joggers "fast food." To avoid overstating the situation, the mountain lions mostly stay out of the city and every lion shooting makes the newspaper.
Copyright 2006 by Ken Young. All rights reserved.