On “Common Sense” Gun Laws

Following the school shooting at Newtown, President Obama has been asking Americans in general, and Congress specifically, to unite in supporting and adopting what he refers to, most recently in a speech given in Minneapolis, as “common-sense” changes to federal gun laws.

What troubles me about this particular and oft-repeated phrase is that “common sense” usually describes a simple and cursory consideration of facts and generally calls upon preconceptions, bias, and emotion.  This may be problematic, as often ideas that appear true to one’s own understanding of common sense end up being, in fact, false.

As an example, consider the historical shift in the understanding of the structure of the solar system.  For centuries, the geocentric model was the clear scientific consensus.  It was “common sense” that the sun moved around the earth; one simply had to glance skyward over the course of the day and they could plainly see the sun moving across the sky.  That is, until Copernicus looked at movement of the celestial bodies scientifically, with reason, mathematics, and perspective.

In a White House video press release, Obama detailed his specifics for “common-sense legislation”, claiming to have the support of “a majority of the American people.”  The proposals included banning “military-style assault weapons”, banning “high capacity ammunition clips”, and asking the vice-president to “[address] a culture that too often glorifies guns and violence.”

Sounds good, right?  It is certainly common sense to think that fewer guns will result in fewer crimes with guns.  So will stricter gun laws keep law-abiding people safer?  Or might it be true these and various other proposals are simply reactionary, sensational, and anti-intellectual?  In this article, I will attempt to demonstrate that these proposals will at best do very little to affect their intended results, and that the trade-offs will actually be much worse, as well as to rebut the most common arguments used to support them.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Many a statistic has been thrown out in justification of restricting the private ownership of certain or all firearms.  Let’s focus on one popular comparison:  that between the U.S., where gun ownership is widespread, and the U.K., where firearms are severely restricted and handguns or any weapons for self-defense are completely prohibited.  Here are some of the legitimate points:

The U.S. ranks #1 in gun ownership with 88.8 firearms per 100 people, whereas England and Wales rank #88 with 6.2/100.  Predictably, the U.S. has a higher gun murder rate, at 3.6 per 100,000 citizens; the U.K.’s is only 0.04/100k.  Furthermore, the U.S. has a higher overall murder rate at 4.8/100k versus 1.2/100k.  The U.K. has also had far fewer mass shootings in the time period since the 1997 Firearms Act.

The problem with statistics is that individuals or groups with a specific agenda will tend to only look at data that confirm their bias and ignore the rest.  Some have argued that increased firearms ownership actually reduced gun violence, most notably John Lott in his book More Guns, Less Crime.  I would assert that there is likely no correlation between gun ownership rates and gun murder one way or the other.

A positive correlation would suggest that the U.S. would have one of the highest, if not the highest, gun murder rates in the world, but in actuality it ranks only at #28.  El Salvador and Honduras are the worst, but they have gun ownership rates less than even England and Wales.  Yemen and Switzerland have the second and third highest rates of gun ownership, respectively, but have relatively few gun murders.

While the U.S. has a higher gun murder rate than the U.K., economist Thomas Sowell points out that this has always been true, even when both had lax gun laws, suggesting cultural differences have a stronger effect.  Furthermore, this comparison overlooks another set of data that seems to affirm positive outcomes of higher rates of gun ownership.  While the U.K. does much better in terms of homicide, it is far worse in terms of total violent crime.  In 2009, the U.S. had a violent crime rate of 466/100k, whereas the U.K.’s rate was 2034/100k.  That is over 4x higher!  I’ve looked at more recent data (here and here) that suggests that in 2011 the rate was actually 8x higher!

One reason for this discrepancy is that guns create a psychological deterrent to violent crime.  When the odds are relatively high that a potential victim might be carrying a gun, would-be criminals are less likely to act.  In the U.K., even most police officers are barred from carrying firearms, so criminals know that they can commit violent acts with almost no chance of being met with immediate, lethal resistance.

At best, banning guns will do little to stop gun murder.  What is worse is that gun ban laws carry a perverse incentive, and while criminals will not actually be kept from attaining firearms, law-abiding citizens will.  The best way to stop a crazed shooter is to shoot back, but when peaceful people are barred from owning the means to protect themselves, there will be more occurrences of violence.  Sadly, these consequences are largely invisible, while the comparatively extremely rare mass shootings get much of the media attention.  Is it wise to pass legislation for the purpose of protecting people from violence when evidence shows that the trade-offs might actually be worse?

“Assault Weapons”:  A Case Study in Political Misdirection

 

A customized civilian AR-15, commonly referred to as an “assault weapon”.

There is perhaps not a greater modern example of mendacious and politicized newspeak than the term “assault weapon”.  The language suggests weapons that are only legitimately used in offensive assaults of large groups of people or fortified installations.  As a made-up term that has no meaning outside its use as a political tool, it succeeds in coloring many people’s perception and attitude towards certain modern firearms.  The term was invented in 1989 by anti-gun publicists and was successfully used to pass the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and subsequent state laws.  Since that ban ended in 2004, the current clamor for gun regulation is aimed at reestablishing the ban on this category of weapon.  Before we make that mistake, let me clear a few things up by rebutting the most common misconceptions.

“Assault weapons spray bullets.”

The term “assault weapon” does not refer to automatic weapons, which fire multiple rounds as you hold down the trigger.  Those are already severely restricted, and while I believe there may be legitimate reasons to lift those restrictions, for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the former type.

“Assault weapons” are almost all semi-automatic rifles, which fire one bullet per trigger pull.  Their rate of fire is far less than their military automatic counterparts (the M16 can fire 950 rounds per minute while the AR-15 can only achieve about 60).  They do have faster rates of fire than bolt- and lever-action rifles, but it is no faster than semi-automatic handguns.

“Assault weapons are extremely powerful, and therefore more deadly.”

The most common “assault weapon” is the AR-15.  Originally manufactured by Colt, but now licensed to dozens of firearms makers, it is the semi-auto-only civilian version of the M16 rifle (or the shorter M4 carbine) used by the U.S. military.  Because it is so widespread, I’ll focus on this rifle when referring to “assault weapons”, though there are, of course, dozens of others.

The standard ammunition for the AR-15 is 5.56mm NATO (.223 caliber).  This bullet has a relatively small diameter, but fires with relatively high speed.  Depending of the cartridge used, a 5.56 round delivers 1066 ft lbs of energy at 200 yards, at the most.  Compare that to three common cartridges used in hunting:  the .270 Wby Mag (2655 ft lbs), .30-06 Spfd. (1909 ft lbs), or .338 Lapua (3167 ft. lbs).  The AR-15 is less powerful than hunting rifles that fire these loads.

“Assault weapons are frequently used to murder people.”

The AR-15 is one of the highest-selling rifles in the U.S., millions being sold since 1963.  However, FBI data show that in 2011 only 3.8% of gun murders (323/8583) were committed with rifles of any kind and only 0.6% were done with “assault weapons”.  In comparison, 496 murders were committed with hammers and clubs and 1694 were with knives.

Banning “assault weapons” like the AR-15 is like banning the Hummer for being too dangerous of a car (I mean, LOOK at it!) even if it was one of the best-selling cars around, but SUVs of any kind only accounted for ~5% of a vehicular deaths, whereas the vast majority were from driving sedans.  It doesn’t make any sense.

“Assault weapons are military weapons.  Weapons designed for military use to kill people have no place in the hands of civilians.”

“Assault weapons”, per se, are not used by the military, which uses select-fire versions of those weapons.

They do, however, contain design elements originally intended for military use.  Then again, so does pretty much every firearm ever made.  The shotgun, for example, has been used in warfare since it was called the ‘blunderbuss’.  Civil war cavalrymen carried them, as did “trench sweepers” in WWI.  The Mauser 98 was designed as a German combat rifle in 1898.  The bolt-action assembly was a great design and is still used in excellent hunting rifles, such as the Remington 798, today.  Mauser also designed one of the first semi-auto handguns, the C96, which was the first self-loading pistol used in battle.  Then came John Browning’s Colt M1911 in .45 ACP which was designed specifically for the U.S. military and was a standard-issue side arm until 1990.  It’s still one of the most popular civilian-owned handguns in the country.

The misperception of “assault weapons” comes from their cosmetic features.  They are often described as “military-style” because they look similar to modern military arms, and this is used to scare people.  The cosmetic features that are expressly prohibited in the proposed legislation include pistol grips, vertical fore-grips, barrel shrouds, flash-suppressors, threaded barrels, and collapsible stocks.  None of these features add to the lethality of the weapon.  Functionally, an AR-15 is no different than a semi-automatic ranch rifle with a walnut stock.  The Assault Weapons Ban simply plays on the reactionary fears of scary-looking black guns.

“Why does anyone even need an AR-15?  There are no legitimate civilian uses.”

There are three:  target shooting, hunting, and personal defense.

Competition shooters like the AR-15 because it is relatively lightweight, has low recoil, accepts detachable magazines, and can include rail systems to attach a variety of scopes and sights.

The AR-15 is gaining ever-greater acceptance as a hunting firearm.  It was once disdained by hunting purists who thought those using one were posturing as Rambo, but now it is rather commonplace.  It is primarily used for hunting small game (varmints), and coyotes. It’s very good for hunting wild boar/feral pig. This is because boars have a tendency to charge hunters. An AR-15 allows for quick follow-up shots, which are important for stopping a charging boar, and are also helpful when hunting anything and your first shot has imperfect placement. A quick second shot is good so that you don’t merely injure an animal, which even hunters would admit is quite inhumane.  It is not commonly used for deer, but not because of the misperception that it is too powerful, on the contrary, it is not powerful enough to ensure a humane kill in many circumstances.

With respect to home defense, the AR-15 is popular because of its versatility.  It can be found in a shorter carbine length, can accept tactical accessories like improved sights and flashlights, is accurate, and its low weight and recoil means it can easily be wielded by women.  AR-15s also accept 30-round magazines.

This brings us to another misleading political term:  “high-capacity magazines”.  What is “high-capacity”?  The previous assault weapons ban declared it to be anything over 10 rounds.  In New York, citizens are limited to seven rounds, which is unfathomably patronizing.  Many handguns today accept magazines in the range of 11-19 rounds; this is not abnormally high, it is the factory standard.  I prefer the term “standard-capacity”, since the AR-15 was designed to hold 30-round magazines.  So why would someone need a 30-round magazine?

When you are under some sort of attack or someone breaks into your house you are automatically at a disadvantage.  You’ve had no time to mentally prepare and adrenaline often has a strongly negative affect on fine motor coordination.  This means that your ability to get a perfect aim or to manipulate and reload magazines may be significantly compromised.  Not to mention the fact that you might be able to acquire a weapon but not remember to grab an extra magazine.  You want to do everything you can to put the odds of survival in your favor.  That means having good, reliable, accurate weapons with fast actions; training with them regularly; and having more bullets than you need, certainly more than the other guy(s).

When questioning what is appropriate for civilians to use in lawful personal defense, I think a good standard would be to look at what police officers use, being that they are themselves, civilians.  Most police officers in the U.S. carry side-arms that hold 11-19 rounds and an increasing number carry AR-15s with 30-round magazines as a backup long gun in their vehicles.  Police officers do not carry weapons in order to coordinate preemptive assaults of entrenched positions or to massacre large groups of people; they carry them for the lawful defense of themselves and others.  This indicates that the AR-15 is a legitimate and, in fact, preferred tool for self-defense.

The Purpose of the Second Amendment

A common strategy for justifying federal arms restrictions is to claim either that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution can be interpreted in ways that suggest limitations to an individual right to own personal firearms, or that it is an outdated notion and that the Founder’s would not have added it had they known how firearms technology would progress.

Understand that there is no such thing as a “Constitutional right”.  That is to say, the Constitution does not grant the rights of free speech, exercise of religion, or due process of law to the people.  What individuals have are natural, or God-given rights.  They derive from the very nature of individuals having autonomy and self-ownership.  They do not require legal justification, as they are self-evident and axiomatic.  The Constitution merely affirms that the government has no authority to produce legislation or engage in activities which conflict with an individual’s natural rights.

Individuals do not have a right to guns, per se.  They have a right to self-defense and to property.  Guns are a means to protect these rights.  It is true that guns can be used to commit violence, but violence in and of itself is not wrong.  According to the non-aggression principle, the initiation of force is illegitimate, but defensive, restitutive, or retaliatory force is not.  A government has no moral authority to deny people the means of self-defense or to confiscate property items if they use them for legitimate purposes, regardless of the hypothetical potential for illegitimate uses.

Being a tool of defense, guns put a stop to tyranny.  I don’t only mean tyranny from an organized regime, but the tyranny of thugs and criminals.  For most of human history, if you were weak (a woman, a child, old, infirm, “backward”) you would easily be terrorized or even killed by strong, violent men.  We now have a piece of technology, often times that can fit in a pocket, that can outcompete even the strongest and most violent attacker.  Guns are an equalizer.

In addition to personal self-defense, a reason for the Second Amendment is to facilitate armed resistance against a tyrannical government.  I’m shocked at how often I encounter derisive opposition to this claim.  One would think it wouldn’t seem too far-fetched, what with the murders of at least 170 million people in the 20th century alone, who were forcibly disarmed and killed by their own governments.  The documentary Innocents Betrayed describes how arms restrictions preceded immense systematic genocide in places such as Turkey, the Soviet Union, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Guatemala, Tibet, Bangladesh, and Sudan.  That Americans do not currently fear this level of tyranny is no reason to abdicate our right to the means of armed resistance.  Should we someday find ourselves in a scenario that is clearly not without precedent, a sudden realization that the right to keep and bear arms is essential will be too late.

The Founders realized this, which is why they included the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights.  Though they did not face genocide from Imperial England, the tyranny and oppression was enough to prompt the Revolution.  The Founders rightly understood both that they could not have achieved victory if the colonists had not been armed and that their best efforts to create a government founded in justice and liberty might prove to be in vain.

Though it has been argued that the militia clause indicates that only soldiers have a right to keep and bear arms, a brief examination shows this to be patently false.  The Founders understood the “militia” to be comprised of civilians, set apart from a standing army.  They realized that the military of any government might be used by ambitious and evil men to terrorize the people, as had been the case with the British army.  George Mason, regarded as the father of the Bill of Rights, wrote:

“… A well-regulated Militia, composed of the Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen was necessary to protect our ancient laws and liberty from the standing army…”

Samuel Adams echoed Mason’s sentiments, saying:

“… It is always dangerous to the liberties of the people to have an army stationed among them, over which they have no control … The Militia is composed of free Citizens. There is therefore no Danger of their making use of their power to the destruction of their own Rights, or suffering others to invade them.”

Furthermore, James Madison, the chief author of the Constitution, wrote:

“Americans [have] the right and advantage of being armed – unlike citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

These quotes clearly show us that the intention of the Second Amendment was to ensure the right of every American to own a firearm for their own defense, should they so chose.

Another popular argument is to say that the Second Amendment was written during a time when the firearms technology consisted of muzzle-loading muskets and rifles and that the Founders could not have envisioned the death-machines of today.  The fundamental flaw with this argument is that if it is applied to any other portions of the Bill of Rights, it falls right apart.

Imagine the same argument in reference to the First Amendment.  The founders could not have known about radio, or television, or the Internet.  Surely, free speech should be limited only to that which I can verbalize with my unamplified voice and written material printed with my 18th-century press.  That, and when affirming the freedom of religion, they couldn’t have possible known that we’d have Mormons and Scientologists, so the rights of those people are forfeit.  Or what about the Third Amendment?  It specifically says that civilians are under no obligation to provide quarters for soldiers in “a house”.  It says nothing about condos or apartments.

The Second Amendment prohibits the U.S. government from infringing the right of its citizens to own personal arms for the defense of self and others.  These arms should be commensurate with the personal arms of contemporary soldiers so as to impose a legitimate barrier to oppressive tyranny of the state, the military, or foreign invaders.

What a ban really means…

On the hypocrisy of gun control, I believe Stephan Molyneux says it the best:

“If you are for gun control, then you are not against guns, because the guns will be needed to disarm people.  So it’s not that you are anti-gun.  You’ll need the police’s guns to take away other people’s guns.  So you’re very Pro-Gun, you just believe that only the Government (which is, of course, so reliable, honest, moral and virtuous…) should be allowed to have guns.  There is no such thing as gun control.  There is only centralizing gun ownership in the hands of a small, political elite and their minions.”

What does it mean to “ban” something?  It means that the government places a criminal restriction on the possession of a certain item, regardless of the potential legitimate uses and actual actions taken with the item.

When the government bans 30-round magazines, the politicians who write and vote for that law are saying some very disturbing things:  that the mere possession of those items justifies armed agents of the state entering your home and putting guns in your face, arresting you, shooting you if they think you are resisting, imprisoning (read: enslaving) you, and confiscating (read: stealing) your wealth and material property.

Are these reasonable and appropriate responses for a person who simply owns an AR-15 or a 30-round magazine?  Owning an “assault weapon” hurts no one. Owning a 30-round magazine for one hurts no one.  Hunting with one hurts no one.  Target shooting with one hurts no one.  Self-defense might hurt someone, but it is a legitimate use.

Banning “assault weapons” means that you can be put in prison just for doing any one of these things, which are not actually crimes.  I find this to be egregious, paternalistic, sickening, and unambiguously morally wrong.

Further Inquiry

Here are some excellent articles and videos that help explain the error of gun control, many in ways far superior to my own article:

The Truth About Assault Weapons is a slideshow that exposes the misinformation surrounding the assault weapons ban.  It is concise and persuasive and a good way to introduce these ideas of gun freedom to a novice.

Judge Andrew Napolitano wrote an excellent piece here concerning gun laws and the violation of the Second Amendment.

I previously mentioned the documentary Innocents Betrayed.  I mention it again because I think it is essential viewing and presents a strong case against gun control legislation due to its connection to acts of genocide.

I also previously mentioned Stephan Molyneux’s video Gun Control: History, Philosophy, and Ethics where he shreds the mendacious arguments so often used to attempt to justify gun restrictions.

Here, David Kopel, associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute, evaluates prospects for changes to federal gun laws following the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Here is a list of articles concerning firearms, violence, and the second amendment, provided by The Independent Institute.

This site provides further claims that the intention of the Founders in writing the Second Amendment was to ensure civilians could own personal firearms as a mean to resist the tyranny of the state.