5 false assumptions in the gun control debate


I've had a great number of responses to my article "We need to talk about the whole gun thing" and I thought I'd address them – preferably in one article.

Many of the responses share a common feature: the tendency to assume one or more variables that are false, but that are nonetheless intuitively appealing – so appealing we can't relinquish them to see the situation for what it truly is.

I liken this process to the "grip reflex" of which I've previously spoken: as a species, humanity often seems to have difficulty letting go of something that seems intuitive (ie. that which comes to us automatically and just feels "right") – especially if it makes the issue with which we're confronted look "simple" or "common sense". We end up thinking:

"I've got a real grip on this problem and I'm not going to let go, dammit!"

Nagging, contradictory (and seemingly counterintuitive) data is either diminished or totally ignored – especially if it "complicates" what is assumed to be a simple picture (as if any picture of reality is ever "simple").

The adjacent graphic provides a perfect example of this tendency. Take a look and see if you can work out what the false assumption is. Many people I know just can't. Instead of dropping a problem-solving approach that clearly isn't working, they doggedly keep at it because they think it "gives them a real grip, dammit!"

If you can't work out this "math conundrum", I'll help you at the end. But for now, let us examine 5 of the most common responses I've received and the false assumptions made in them: assumptions that are every bit as false (and intuitively appealing!) as the one in the math conundrum:

1. I don't care what you say: I still think the government wants to ban all guns!

I got this a lot in comments on social media, on this blog (eg. "Ymar Sakar's" "We here in the US already know who wants to ban things") and in private emails. Consider this correspondent:

"According to polls many gun owners are "OK" with banning high capacity magazines....do you really believe they will stop there? Do you not think your revolver or semi-auto shotgun will be next?

Now I've already addressed this topic – comprehensively. It isn't my fault that some readers cannot (or don't want to) grasp the simple facts I outlined here. This failure is really the equivalent of blocking one's ears and going "La, la, la, la – I'm not listening!"

I'll try to make it simple here one last time (3 easy points):

(1) The US government could never afford a buy-back to support a "ban" on firearms (whether total or even "substantial"). The cost would be astronomical. It doesn't have the money – particularly in this current climate but even if it had a budget surplus.

(2) The US government is not about to "seize guns" without a buy-back – not unless it suddenly morphs into a state like North Korea. Not only would it be ludicrously difficult to effect a forceful seizure of all (or even "many") firearms, it would still be excessively costly (in terms of money and, very likely, lives). It would also be totally ruinous to the economy and society as a whole. Expect this scenario if you also expect some sort of apocalyptic end to Western civilisation. For the rest of us, it is pure paranoid fantasy.

(3) Take it from me (a government "insider" for the last 23 years): no Western government – particularly that of the USA – has any plans to effect a ban on private gun ownership (again, whether total or just "substantial"). It almost certainly never will (not in our lifetimes anyway – unless there is some sort of massive shift in Western culture; one that is of the kind humanity has never before seen).

This is because government is made up of ordinary people and (despite the inevitable howls of protest I anticipate from some quarters) it actually reflects the broad will and mindset of the people (unless you think the government is full of communists/socialists, overseas spies, gays or atheists hell bent on destroying the nation for Satan, or some such other nonsense – see point 4 below).

Most Americans (including people in "government" - ie. both politicians from both sides, their advisors and public servants) are not in favour of gun banning. Heck they're not even in favour of gun control! For more on this, see point 10 in this article.

[I strongly suspect that the latter data arises because so many people in the US simply have no idea that gun control ≠ gun banning. No doubt this is because the latter is largely a result of NRA and other vested interest misinformation/propaganda. For example, see point 11 in the same article which notes that when asked about specific policies to control guns, US citizens are often in favour of them (in contrast to being polled about "gun control" generally).]

In any event, destroying the gun industry would also be very bad for the economy. No government wants to go there.

So the false assumption here is this:

"Gun control" = "gun banning"

It doesn't. It never has (in the US and elsewhere in the West) and it probably never will. I've already outlined what I consider the likely "worst case scenario" for the US – and this merely involves a uniform regulatory system that requires applicants to "jump through more hoops" and the restriction of a small class of firearms (semi-automatic, high capacity magazine rifles).

2. Even if government doesn't expressly ban guns, other gun control measures will inevitably lead to a "defacto ban"

The argument is that while government might not effect laws banning guns (as indeed I've just argued they will not and cannot) it will still achieve its "nefarious objectives" by indirect means, such as "regulation creep". Indeed, they argue that government is already engaged in this process. Consider this correspondent:

"Our government is feverishly working to strip our right to bear arms by both regulation and presidential executive orders. One example of how it's done is by regulating ammunition sales. Our distributors are limited to only being able to ship XXX amount of ammo per day, and only X amount of ammo on any truck. While that sounds like a safety issue, it isn't... it's a method of controlling the market and preventing ammunition from being available to shooters. They are also making every effort to disarm by regulating ammunition by "microstamping" and forcing ammunition manufacturers to use "expirable primers"... so that the ammunition will have a short shelf life."

Okay, it's going to take a while to disentangle the false assumptions from this argument. The best way I can do it is by analogy:

Imagine for a moment if the Second Amendment related to another fairly fundamental "right": the right to drive a motor vehicle (a not unreasonable concept, given the necessity of motor vehicles in our modern, Western way of life).

Now imagine if someone noted that the government was "feverishly working to strip our right to drive" by regulating vehicles (having very strict conditions of roadworthiness for registration, stamping engines with serial numbers, chips and hidden markers to prevent "rebirthing" of stolen vehicles etc., regulating where gas could be sold and for how much and at what times and what octane etc.).

Imagine if the government was simultaneously "feverishly" working to regulate what vehicles people could drive under what conditions (B-double, articulated, fixed rigid, standard sedan/wagon, motorcycle, etc. all on different licences, some oversize vehicles allowed only on certain roads and at certain times and with certain conditions).

Imagine if some vehicles were unable to be road registered at all (eg. Indy racing cars or Formula One - even thought they had lights, brakes etc. fitted "after market").

Imagine if there were age restrictions on getting a licence - then learners' and probationary periods. Imagine if you could lose your licence for drink or dangerous driving, or incapacity/infirmity/mental illness.

Would you say that regulation had violated this alternate version of the "Second Amendment"? That your right to drive had been "denied" or "stripped away"?

I suggest not. And I suggest (as a lawyer) that the Supreme Court (which protects your constitutional rights and acts as a foil to your legislature and executive under what is known as the "separation of powers") would reach the same conclusion.

So the false assumption made in this "defacto ban" or "ban by stealth" argument is this:

The US constitutional "right to bear arms" = a totally unregulated right to do so.

It should be patently obvious that this conflation is false: Reasonable regulation is, and always has been, consistent with our constitutional and other legislative rights. If you still doubt me, consider:

We have a right to get married - but not to more than one person at the same time and not to our siblings, parents, children, uncles or aunts.
We have a right to worship - but to the extent that this worship would permit, aid or encourage a "death cult", plural marriage, child molestation etc.
We have a right to free speech, but not to spray that speech on certain walls or use that speech to incite racial hatred.
We have a right to hire and fire, but this doesn't mean we can base our decision to do so on racial, sexual, marital or disability discrimination.
And so it goes.

As a lawyer I also have no doubt that, from the perspective of strict black letter law, the conflation of "right" and "totally unregulated right" is manifestly incorrect. I reach this conclusion not only on the basis of my understanding of our shared common law but also because of certain specifics: For example, the US Second Amendment refers to the "militia" being "well regulated". Yes, I know that the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v Heller that the Second Amendment confers the right to own a gun for self defence. However this in no way suggests an unregulated right to possess firearms: regulation does not, in and of itself, preclude self defence. [It is possible that the Supreme Court might one day rule that the right to defence does not include a right to carry a firearm - but that is a separate issue and not one I've sought to address in my previous essay.]

What happens if regulation crosses the "threshold" and starts to become a "defacto ban"? The regulation will be totally unconstitutional in the US (though not here – however strangely enough, we haven't had such a "crossing of the threshold" as I note here in my previous article).

My previous comments about government not wanting, or being able to afford, a total or even substantial "gun ban" apply equally here.

3. Good guys need guns to stop bad guys with guns!

To quote Wayne LaPierre of the NRA:

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Or we can quote our own paragon of sense, "Ymar Sakar":

"The solution many in the US like is, to be frank, kill people who need killing."

Nowhere is this argument more "forcefully" (and, apparently "persuasively") made than in the adjacent "stick figure meme". It reminds me so much of that math conundrum at the start. "Do you get it? Or are you stupid or something?"

Okay, where to start...

Let's begin with the opening observation that this "argument" assumes that government is "taking guns away from the good guys". If we broadly assume that the "good guys" are civilians who are not criminals, then as I've explained in points 1 and 2, this isn't true. It will probably never be true.

Yes, some gun licence applicants might have to "jump through more hoops" and a small class of firearms (semi-automatic, high capacity magazine rifles) might be restricted. But this doesn't mean "the good guys lose their guns and the bad guys don't". This falls into the same old absolutist fallacy that insists responsible regulation = banning. And the notion that "criminals don't obey the law - so you'll only be regulating the good guys" is patent nonsense if you think about it for a minute. Does that mere fact that not everyone obeys the law mean that we should scrap laws?

Yes, guns might be reduced in the community over time via regulation. But that is because we as a society become more selective about whom we don't allow to own guns. As I've said previously, if you're in favour of refusing gun licenses to criminals, the mentally ill etc. then you're in favour of gun control; all that remains for us to discuss is the detail. Repeating the tired, nonsensical mantra that "criminals don't obey the law" means you're also saying: "so we shouldn't bother trying to stop them getting guns". It's an absurdity on its face.

Yes, it's true that the total number of guns in circulation in the community can be gradually reduced by responsible gun control (the emphasis here is on gradually; to be affordable and logistically practicable, any new gun control measures, including a restriction on what people call "assault weapons" would necessarily have to be phased in over a longer period).

But such a reduction in the total number of guns in circulation in the community is a good thing. It doesn't mean that "good guys" will be disadvantaged and "bad guys" won't. It just means the community will no longer be "awash" with guns in the hands of people who haven't evidenced their suitability; only those who are diligent, responsible and informed will have access to legal firearms.

All our data points to the fact that if you reduce the number of legal firearms in a society by reference to responsible regulation, you also reduce the number of illegal firearms in that society (which is the case in countries like Australia, New Zealand, UK, the countries of Western Europe, etc.). It might not happen overnight, but it will happen.

Furthermore, the data unequivocally supports the conclusion that when you reduce the number of firearms circulating in a society, the number of gun-related homicides and other crimes drops as well – not to mention accidental shootings. If you doubt me, have a read of the synopsis of Harvard's Injury Control Research Center report. [And yes, I think we can agree that this data is a notch above your average NRA or extreme right-wing conspiracy theory website that uses language like "liberal lies" etc. and that cherry picks random statistical data to match a pre-determined anti gun-control conclusion.]

Still doubt me? Look at points 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in this Washington Post article. What do you notice? Rates of gun ownership are actually dropping in the US and have been for decades. Yet, strangely, rates of gun crime are also dropping. My - what a coincidence! Also, the rates of gun crime are higher in the States where there is a higher rate of gun ownership. They are also higher where there is less gun regulation. Again, what a surprise – who would have thought!

As the article says: "The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive."

If you find this "comforting" to your own "anti gun-control" standpoint, consider this: The data is entirely consistent with the observation that less guns = less gun crime. It is however totally inconsistent with is the argument that more guns = less gun crime (which is what that awfully simplistic meme is falsely assuming). Not much "comfort" there, I'm afraid.

Second, if we start thinking rationally about what we mean by "good guys with guns" we'll start to realise that we ordinary civilians aren't the "good guys whose job it is to shoot the bad guys". Yes, we have a right to defend ourselves (more on that in a minute). But who are the "good guys" whom we can realistically trust for protection from "bad guys"? They would be the police. And no one is even suggesting that their guns be taken away.

The police are the ones who undergo rigorous training – not just in firearm use, but in tactical response: appropriate "deadly" fire, crowd management, diffusing violent situations, arrest, etc. Just because you might go down to the firing range where you're a "fairly good shot" doesn't mean you have the other necessary and appropriate law enforcement and public safety skills in the form of training, appropriate situational reflexes and deeper understanding of the criminal behaviour and the consequences of what you might do in response to that behaviour.

By contrast, that appalling "stick figure meme" suggests that we're in a kind of "war" of "good guy vs. bad guy" civilians.

You'll note that when the "good guy civilians" are armed, they are happy but the equally armed "bad guys" are sad (because they can't do "bad things as easily" &#9786). What absolute nonsense!

Anyone who has studied criminology knows that in the case of two antagonist civilian groups, one side doesn't become "sad" through the realisation that the other is equally armed. Instead they both simply see it a greater challenge in achieving their objectives (whether lawful or unlawful) – one that leads to the escalation of violence and what I have called a "civilian arms race".

You just have to look at gang warfare to see that this is true. If one gang arms itself more, the other follows suit. The idea that one gang will manage to "overpower the other completely" and "triumph in perpetuity" is as unlikely as the notion that Israel and Hamas are on the road to a permanent (antagonist) solution. [As to the latter, leaving aside some sort of apocalypse (nuclear war or other means of total genocide by one side or the other), the idea is far-fetched to say the least.]

[And, by the way, stopping me to point out that you would never "disarm one gang and not the other" is just a red herring. I'm not suggesting that either. I'm simply pointing out an example of a dynamic in which a "civilian arms race" is already playing out – and not to anyone's benefit. Besides, I've already noted that no one is "disarming" anyone (see points 1 and 2 – again).]

If you don't believe me about the whole "civilian arms race" thing, look to South Africa which is in the midst of such a race – but on a societal (not just gang-level) scale. The results are not good.

But last, what in the world makes anyone think that the statistics support the notion that more civilian guns equal greater safety?

Okay, it's true that in a very violent society (like South Africa) having a gun is bound to be handy, if not necessary. There (or in the US) I would own a firearm (and carry it, if I were permitted). Were I in Suzanna Gratia Hupp's circumstance at the Luby's massacre, I too would have wanted a gun with me. Who wouldn't?

But this doesn't change the fact that this is far from a desirable situation to have occurring in society (on a regular basis). The broader "solution" (as opposed to what you fantasise about happening in a specific situation) to reducing the risk of such things occurring in society isn't to arm everyone "to the teeth" (as emotively and intuitively appealing as this argument is, especially when listening to Ms Hupp addressing the Texas Legislature).

Why? Because having to rely on your own arms for safety means you've already lost some fairly basic safety in your particular society. The question is, how can one get some of that "basic safety" back? As I've just explained, arming yourself to the teeth might well get you through the next day. But it sure isn't any kind of "template" for government action. The criminals are just going to "up the ante" (as they have in South Africa) and you'll have to do so as well. And so it will go.

To be clear: I'm not saying people shouldn't have the right to defend themselves with firearms. What I am saying is this: Why would you assume that your best chance of creating a safe society lie in government accelerating, rather than responsibly diffusing, a civilian arms race?

The statistics certainly don't help you in such an assumption: I've already referred to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Let's look at what it had to say about the statistics of gun use in self defence. What did it find? Gun use in self defence is actually quite rare. The notion that you will successfully defend yourself against an armed attacker using your own gun is, statistically speaking, largely a fantasy – a desirable and understandable fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.

In respect of the latter, it is a fantasy that even I indulge from time to time. Why? Because I want to feel empowered. I want to feel in control. But I recognise it as a fantasy nonetheless.

And if you want to raise one of the 5 most commonly cited examples for such "civilian defensive use of firearms", consider this article which debunks each of them.

Ah, but what about Suzannah Gratia Hupp's unfortunate and heart-rending case? Wouldn't she at least have had a chance at saving her parents had she had her gun with her?
Yes, this is true.

But the apparent assumption (made by many) that she, an ordinary civilian with no law enforcement or military training, might have "saved the day" is a big one – one the statistics don't support (as much as I would have preferred her to have had her gun there on the day).

Furthermore, the assumption that this one case – where a civilian almost had her gun, which she might have used to kill a mass shooter – is hardly data that can override the overwhelming preponderance of statistical evidence that civilians don't tend to use their own firearms effectively in self defence.

In short, as much as I would have wanted Ms Hupp to have had her gun with her on that particular night (to hell with the statistics and the law), and as much as I would have wanted a gun in my hands were I in Ms Hupp's shoes, her one example does not provide any sort of persuasive data for influencing government policy on how to reduce the risks associated with mass shootings. At best, her case, along with all the other mass shootings in the US (which country has had 15 of the 25 world's worst shootings in the past 50 years) support the view that there is something terribly, terribly wrong there. And whatever the government is doing (or not doing) isn't working.

By the way, I'll make this short aside to note that the assertion that shootings such as Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech took place in "gun free zones" is absolute and unmitigated irrelevant nonsense. In the American context it is a bit like saying you can have a "smoke free zone" in an aircraft where smoking is generally allowed. Give me a break.

So what are the false assumptions made by this argument? They are as follows:

Someone is going to "take guns away" from the "good guys".
Increasing private gun ownership means a safer society.

Let's make it simple: these assumptions are manifestly false. Do you get it?

4. But we need guns to deter government aggression!

I've tried to summarise the above "argument" in one phrase, but truthfully it contains so many false assumptions that I can barely count them all – and it becomes very hard to work out exactly what this argument is actually trying to convey.

Most of the people who responded with this are very well-meaning and decent folks; the kind I respect in ordinary discourse and parlance – so I'm going to try my best to untangle at least some of the false assumptions as politely and thoroughly as I can.

Consider this quote from Randy Webster (whose manners and sincerity I can admire, even if I disagree with his argument):

"This is a large nation with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds. Many of us feel disenfranchised by the current federal government. We are constantly told that we are wrong to continue to embrace the values of our parents and grandparents. We are told that we must be accepting of types of behavior that we believe are wrong. Our children are being taught values that we don’t hold because the federal government demands it and then those children are given the right to bypass our authority by that same government. Most of our state governments are full of people who hold the same values as we do but find themselves powerless before a federal government that has usurped their proper place. I fear that at some point in the near future that our founding fathers fears of a strong federal government that is out of touch with a large part of her citizenry will be realized. If that time comes, and I pray it never does, I want the protection from that government that my ancestors demanded that I have.

Please understand that I am not advocating an overthrow of the government of the United States. I believe that there are many peaceful steps the various States could take to restore the proper balance of this nation. I pray that the restoration of States rights doesn’t require the States to ever raise militias to oppose a federal military force. But make no mistake that the States do have the right to do so if necessary and a well armed citizenry is what makes it possible."

I have had umpteen such responses and each reflects an obviously sincere belief – and a sincere interpretation of the Second Amendment. The problem I have is understanding exactly what that interpretation is.

The suggestion seems to be that it reflects a right to be armed against the federal government - presumably in case the federal government goes "all beserk" and inflicts some sort of dictatorship on the people.

In order to untangle the premises in this argument we first need to look at what the Second Amendment actually states, namely:

"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."

Now I know that the Heller case has extended this to include the right to bear arms for self defence. But let's be perfectly clear here: there is no suggestion that the federal government was being considered a likely aggressor against whom the self defence might be required. That is pure fiction.

What were the founding fathers really saying here? It helps to have some knowledge of history and a sense of the relevant times.

The Second Amendment, inserted in 1791 (just over 15 years after American War of Independence) is at least in part a response to that War and the desire never again to be subjugated by England (or any other European power).

The fear and reality of British aggression (and their particular version of government/tyranny - for they had taxed the Americans while denying them representation in the British Parliament!) lasted until after the War of 1812 (in which the US was still at war with Britain - and Britain was still imagining it might regain its US colonies).

Back then, militias had to be "regulated" rather than "supplied/equipped" because in those days (as in the days of the American War of Independence) the government did not have the inclination (see below when I refer to distrust of standing armies), or the means, to create a fully equipped modern military establishment of the kind we know today.

Instead, the fledgling republic relied, at least to some extent, upon its citizens to bring their own arms and other equipment into battle against the aggressor. This sort of arrangement required some regulation to ensure consistency; they didn't just want some loose, disorganised and unmanaged rabble who had insufficient firearms and equipment here and a surplus there.

Of course, today "militias" are no longer "necessary to the security of the state".  That security is provided by the US armed forces.

Yes, to some the extent that the Second Amendment was also conferred to allow the people to resist "local" tyranny.  In this respect, it is clearly a reflection of the English Bill of Rights 1689 (which had to do with appeasing Protestants following the Civil War in that country).  The "right to bear arms" was then simply worked in to the American colonies and, in turn, the federal constitution as a matter of precedent.

I shall mention only briefly that in the days of the founding fathers, people did not share today's "Ayn Randian" distrust of government in general.  Their concerns did not relate to some 20th century type of dictatorship (eg. Facist, Communist, etc.).  They certainly weren't concerned with resisting a democratically elected government because it was proposing to implement some limited form of universal health care!

But, at least to some extent, the reference to "well-regulated militias" did reflect a lingering distrust of a professional standing army - one that might be used by a tyrant to oppress the people or a significant group of people (most likely on the basis of their religion, as had happened in Europe during the Reformation).  Accordingly, the Second Amendment was seen as a means of enabling rebellion against such oppression - as a last resort.

An excellent video discussing the Second Amendment

So here we come to the second point:

What in the world makes people think that their possession of small arms will somehow be a deterrent or provide any sort of resistance to the world's mightiest, most sophisticated military machine?

Are they serious? Do they really imagine they are going to keep Stealth fighters/bombers, Apache helicopters, cluster bombs and tanks at bay from their porches with their old trusty shotguns?

Last, this sort of argument is heavily predicated upon accepting the notion that "undesirable values" are being "forced" by government onto the American people. I don't accept that at all – in any shape or form. And I'll try to explain why.

I presume the correspondent I quoted above sincerely believes in what he is saying. Presumably he is referring to things like "gay marriage" and "no prayer in public schools" being "forced" onto the many deeply conservative people in the US. And I understand that social change of this kind can be deeply disconcerting. As a rule, humans don't like change – particularly when it seems to be happening too fast, too soon.

But it would be a grave error to assume that such social change is somehow "driven by government". As I discussed here in my previous article, I have worked in policy and legislation for my entire career (albeit in a different country, however I really don't think our democracies are all that different). In all that time I have not seen evidence that government can "change culture" (aside from limited campaigns like anti-smoking – and even there, was government leading the charge or responding?).

There are no "gays/atheists/foreigners/liberals" in government plotting some mass conspiracy. Government is made up of a cross-section of ordinary people. Our Western societies are changing exponentially for reasons none of us can fathom. Government plays "catch-up" and responds to those changes. It never leads or "causes" them. It doesn't even "encourage" them. Instead, it merely (and often belatedly) does no more than reflect them (or haven't you noticed the fact that the attitudes of Generation Y towards things like cannabis are still totally out kilter with the law?).

Last, even if it tried, government could not "stop" these cultural changes.

As we develop our Western civilisation we will continue down the same road we've been on for a long, long time: just as women, then non-whites, were given voting rights the early to middle of the last century, so things like gay marriage are going to become accepted and church and state will continue to be separated further and further. Whether you or I like it or not, that's about the only thing we can confidently predict.

These changes won't lead to the end of the world (unless overwhelmingly atheist, liberal countries like Norway are already at an apocalypse) and even if they did, you couldn't stop them by stopping government, and you could never stop government with your privately owned gun.

So if I were to list at least some of the false assumptions with this whole argument, I'd have to include these:

Social change = a "liberal government conspiracy", not inexorable cultural change driven by complex social, economic and technological factors.
Private small firearms = capacity to effectively resist federal government.
The Second Amendment = a right to bear arms so as to resist federal government because it isn't the one I voted for last election.

It should be clear that each of these assumptions is manifestly false.

[It goes without saying that this whole argument also relies on the false assumptions noted in points 1 and 2 – namely that the federal government is actually trying or wanting to "ban guns" – which it isn't.]

5. Why regulate guns more when other things cause many more deaths?

This was another common argument I received. To quote "flamingsquid":

"Are they to heavily regulate everything that generates the same or greater number of deaths/year as school shootings? So far we're clocking in, so to speak, at less than a hundred deaths a year in a population in excess of some three hundred million. It seems to me that, if consistently applied, the principles behind the restriction of firearms based on school shootings would generate a culture so risk-averse that it can hardly do anything."

My response to flamingsquid was that it's not about percentages and probabilities, but reasonably avoidable percentages and probabilities. We spend billions on road safety each year, regulating vehicular traffic as heavily as we practicably can. People still die despite this. But we do what we can. We don't say: "Sorry families of victims - but shit happens and I prefer my freedom from regulation to a greater safety that might have saved your beloved."

The reply came back:

"Pools, bathtubs, stairs. None of those are critical to life as we know it, all of them kill more people than school shootings.

There has to be a point at which you write something off as representing an acceptable risk/reward ratio. And it's not clear to me that people with AR-15s get less joy out of them than people get out of their private swimming pools."

In my response I noted that flamingsquid and others seem to be unaware of how heavily regulated things are like swimming pools, bathtubs and stairs actually are. I should know - my day job is writing things like pool and building regulations. They are regulated to the maximum practicable and useful level. If they weren't, there would be many more deaths from people falling down stairs that were too steep/slippery/unguarded; by pools not properly fenced etc, etc.

Sudafed is regulated because people realised that criminals were using it in illegal laboratories to make crystal meth - which is dangerous. Guns are (and should be) regulated because they are prima facie dangerous (as indeed are motor vehicles, factory machines, etc.).

Right now Sudafed is more regulated than AR-15s. In terms of our Western societal standards this is a scandal. And a simplistic calculus of death rates won't change that. We regulate dangerous things without "comparing" them or "blaming them". We regulate them because this helps create a safer society. We regulate them as far as we practicably can to save as many lives as we can and without recourse to statistics telling us that something else kills fewer (or more) people. Each "dangerous thing" is regulated based on what we can practicably do in relation to that thing and that thing alone. If we regulated based on comparisons, we wouldn't worry about screening for terrorists at airports. After all, statistically speaking 9/11 was a one-off. Many more people died due to umpteen other unregulated causes that year.

So what is the false assumption here? It is this:

A low statistical rate of something occurring justifies non-action.

Of all the appalling apologisms offered for opposing reasonable gun control this would have to be the worst. Why? Because it is the most callous, the most psychopathic/sociopathic. There is a reason America and the world is mourning the events of Sandy Hook. We mourn because we know it was a tragedy. We are outraged because we know that this is a trend in the US about which almost nothing useful is being done – largely because of obfuscation by powerful lobby groups like the NRA who don't represent gun owners and ordinary citizens but rather represent the gun manufacturing industry and all its vested interests in maintaining the status quo, whatever the cost to the people. We don't feel and express these emotions simply because a certain percentage threshold of casualties has been reached. And we don't dismiss those emotions simply because it hasn't.

I also find it ironic that the same people who would quote the low statistical rate of mass shootings somehow manage to ignore completely the low statistical rate of guns used in self defence (see point 3). Talk about selective use of statistical data.


Some correspondents have had a go at me for "weighing in" to what is an "American issue." It's none of my business, so I've been told. I'm trampling on sacred American values I don't understand. I'm trying to impose "foreign values". When I've responded (quite moderately, but firmly) to what is essentially a message to "f*** off", I'm told I'm "taking this attack "personally" or "emotionally".

Well I'll tell you what I do take emotionally: the deaths of 20 innocent young children – and the deaths of so many more innocent people in other mass shootings – in horrific circumstances that go well beyond the "cold statistics" that are now being thrown at me. These unnecessary and appallingly tragic deaths impact not only on the families but on the communities, on the whole of the US and indeed people around the globe. You don't need to be American to weep at such needless loss.

So in the wake of this tragedy I found myself thinking: "What can I do to help – even a little – to reduce the chances of this happening again?"

In my case the answer was this:

I have my sense of reason. I have my skills as a writer. I have knowledge – an entire career's experience in legislation, policy and enforcement that has regularly involved firearms and weapons laws. So what I can do is use this reason, my skills and my knowledge to advance the debate.

I do so knowing that many of my readers (the largest demographic being white middle aged males from the US - often from the conservative South and Mid-West) might well be offended, tell me to mind my "own business", tell me that it has nothing to do with "martial arts", and then desert my blog.

My answer is: So what? One of my students reminded me of this quote by Eminem:

"You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something."

Oh and that math conundrum? If you're still having trouble with it, think of this:

What makes you accept that the 2 sums of $49 (what you still owe) should be added to the $1 remaining (what you originally borrowed)? It's a classic false assumption.

* The 2 sums of $49 should be added to the $2 you still owe.

* The remaining $1 should be added to the $2 you gave back to your parents and the $97 you spent to give you a total of what you borrowed.

Put another way, what you owe and what you borrowed are two different things - but this conundrum cleverly conflates the two. It makes an appealing, seemingly intuitive, but false assumption - as I think is amply demonstrated in my own version of the "math conundrum" above.

Don't let yourself fall into the same trap when it comes to the present "gun control debate". Don't doggedly keep a "grip" on something that is so obviously wrong. We all know that the stakes are too high.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic
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