Opinion: Guns — The Facts, the History, the Philosophy

"Minute Man" by Daniel Chester French (1875) (Photo: National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)
“Minute Man” by Daniel Chester French (1875)
(Photo: National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

I am an outlier in the debate about guns. I’m a Northeasterner, and most of my friends are very unfamiliar with guns. There are exceptions, but on social media the most common view I see expressed is to wonder why anyone would want a gun, to wonder why they are legal for civilians to own in the first place, and to view the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution as a ridiculous and absurd anachronism that continues to exist only because the National Rifle Association (NRA) buys legislators with boatloads of cash.

This is a fundamental cultural disconnect. A lot of people own guns, and in some parts of the country nearly everyone owns a gun out of necessity. While hunting is a big part of life for people in some places, and is an economic essential for many who could not afford meat for an entire season unless they take a deer, the debates are not about hunting.

Risk from Guns


"The Lexington Minute Man" by Henry Hudson Kitson (1900), generally regarded as portraying Captain John Parker who commanded colonial militia forces at the Battle of Lexington. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
“The Lexington Minute Man” by Henry Hudson Kitson (1900), generally regarded as portraying Captain John Parker who commanded colonial militia forces at the Battle of Lexington.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

I’ve been asked on social media “how many dead kids” would be acceptable to me, a gravely insulting and utterly wrong interpretation of what seems to me an obvious argument that achieving zero risk is impossible and seeking zero risk would fundamentally change our society in severely negative ways, such as justifying preventive incarceration of people suspected of being mentally ill, despite clear scientific evidence that the vast majority of those with diagnosable mental illness are not violent toward others and are several times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Before we start taking away civil liberties from people with mental illness, it must be noted that 18.3% of the adult population is living with diagnosable mental illness and 4.2% with diagnosable serious mental illness, according to the federal government National Institute of Mental Health. Yet locking up “sickos” in mental institutions is exactly what President Donald Trump has proposed (“Opening Mental Hospitals Unlikely to Prevent Mass Shootings, Experts Say”, Feb 22, 2018, The New York Times).

In 2013, The Atlantic looked at all 30 mass shootings over the previous decade (“How Many Shootings Would the Senate’s Background Check Deal Have Prevented?”, Apr 10, 2013) and found that only one might have been prevented by “enhanced background checks” – and that single case was because the shooter 14 years earlier was prescribed anti-depressant medication while he was going through a divorce. Do we really want to create a giant government database, searchable by anyone who might sell a gun, containing highly personal psychological records of this kind? If we did create such a database, would its existence make people who need psychological help fear to seek it?

I wrote only a few weeks ago (“Analysis: Are Guns a Public Health Problem?”, Jan 10, 2018) about common misunderstandings of gun death statistics, noting how two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides and how mass killings, despite sensational publicity, are statistically incredibly rare. Just as the political left does not want to understand that the likelihood of an American dying from a mass shooting is about the same as the likelihood of dying from a lightning strike, the political right does not want to understand that the recent likelihood of an American dying from Islamist terrorism is about one-tenth the likelihood of dying from a lightning strike (“Donald Trump: At Long Last, Have You No Sense of Decency?”, Nov 2, 2016).

Looking at even narrower criteria such as school shootings, the total number of homicides from all causes of children ages 5 to 18 in school has typically ranged between 15 and 20 per year since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Every homicide is a tragedy, of course, but given that the population in this age range is about 50 million, the chance of any particular child being a homicide victim in school is just slightly more likely than any particular ticket buyer winning the Powerball jackpot.

Experts have voiced concern whether “active shooter drills” in schools may be so psychologically traumatizing that they cause direct harm wildly disproportionate to the infinitesimally unlikely potential harm they are intended to guard against, and even then they may be a waste of effort: “Case studies are difficult to parse. In Parkland, for example, the site of the recent shooting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had an active-shooter drill just last month. The shooter had been through such drills. Purposely countering them may have been a reason that, as he was beginning his rampage [five minutes before daily dismissal], the shooter pulled a fire alarm.” (“What Are Active-Shooter Drills Doing to Kids?”, Feb 28, 2018, The Atlantic).

There is no epidemic of mass shootings, and there is certainly no epidemic of school shootings. No one can even agree about what constitutes a “school shooting,” and many compilers of statistics use such broad criteria as to be aggressively misleading. Education Week has been tracking school shootings in 2018 where death or injury resulted (“School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where”) and as of this writing they are up to six incidents – but some of them are not what would be commonly thought of as a “school shooting” when you consider the details: on Jan 31, a 32 year-old man was shot and killed in the parking lot of a high school in Philadelphia, but the shooting had nothing to do with the school; on Feb 5, an 18 year-old male and 17 year-old female were charged with attempted murder of a 17 year-old in a high school parking lot in Oxon Hill, MD, but the shooting was after school hours, all three were inside the same vehicle, and police said the motive was robbery.

At least Education Week is clear and honest about their criteria, and they openly disclose the broad scope of their analysis. By contrast, the most widely cited source (by MSNBC, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Time, MSN, the BBC, the New York Daily News and HuffPost) for the number of school shootings is the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, whose recent claim that there have been 18 school shootings so far in 2018 was debunked on Feb 15 by The Washington Post under the headline “No, there haven’t been 18 school shootings in 2018. That number is flat wrong.” The Post’s “FactChecker” column previously awarded the organization “Four Pinocchios” (“Has there been one school shooting per week since Sandy Hook?”, Jun 29, 2015), the most negative rating reserved for “whoppers” rather than mere lies.

Professional statisticians who analyze real data have reversed their views, in one case explicitly titling an article “I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.” (Oct 3, 2017, The Washington Post).

Types of Guns

The most singularly uninformed opinions expressed about guns argue for bans of specific weapons or types of weapons, such as “assault rifles,” usually singling out the AR-15 that turned up as the weapon of choice in several mass shootings. But the term “assault rifle” has almost no objective meaning: when the federal “Assault Weapons Ban” was in effect from 1994 to 2004, it banned rifles solely on the basis of cosmetic features (“Even Defining ‘Assault Rifles’ Is Complicated”, Jan 16, 2018, The New York Times). Studies showed that the 10-year ban had no measurable effect on gun crime, which is not surprising because the banned class of weapons were used in less than 2% of crimes to begin with, and speculated that at best small but measurable effects might have been noticed gradually over time had the ban not been allowed to sunset (“Did the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban Work?”, Feb 1, 2013, PolitiFact).

Rifles, “assault” or otherwise, are rarely employed in crimes, and in the most recent data accounted for only 2.48% of murders (“Table 12, Murder, by State, Types of Weapons”, 2016, FBI Uniform Crime Reports). By contrast, hands, fists, and feet accounted for 4.35% of murders, knives and cutting implements for 10.64%, and even non-traditional weapons (such as the proverbial “blunt instrument”) for 11.98%.

So the question necessarily arises: If you want to ban the AR-15, on what basis and with what criteria? Yes, the AR-15 was designed in the 1950s along with its .223 Remington cartridge for military use, but it was a prototype to test a particular military concept. Throughout World War II and the Korean War, the Army had used rifles with cartridges of the kind preferred by hunters, usually about .30 caliber. Soldiers, unlike hunters, must carry their rifles and all of their ammunition often under difficult conditions for weeks or months, so the Army wanted a smaller and lighter rifle that fired smaller, lighter, and weaker ammunition. Soldiers are not shooting anything as massive as a deer, the Army correctly reasoned, so they don’t need all that firepower: the AR-15 and its companion .223 Remington cartridges were downsized to be just powerful enough to remain effective for military purposes. It is inhumane to hunt deer with a .223 Remington because the result would likely be to wound rather than kill. (The cartridge went metric in the late 1970s, becoming the dimensionally identical but higher pressure 5.56mm NATO.)

The M16 is the military version of the AR-15, similar in appearance and firing the same cartridges but completely different functionally: the M16 is a fully automatic machine gun, capable of a firing rate exceeding 700 rounds per minute; the semi-automatic AR-15 is a conventional and ordinary rifle, capable of firing only a single round per trigger pull. By federal law, fully automatic weapons have been heavily restricted from civilian use since 1934 and almost totally prohibited since 1986.

“Semi-automatic” simply means that, each time the trigger is pulled, one round is fired and the next round is chambered ready for firing: it is the conventional mechanism used in the vast majority of both rifles and handguns since the late 1800s. Nearly all guns in practical use today are semi-automatic. There are less common types of guns that use a different method of accomplishing the same function, such as the revolver, an older technology dating back to the early 1800s. There are a few relatively unusual types of guns used for historical or other special purposes. Because of this, proposals to ban semi-automatic weapons invariably reveal a thorough ignorance about firearms, usually due to confusion between the terms “automatic” and “semi-automatic.”

Banning “assault rifles” is therefore only advocated by people who know almost nothing about guns and often adamantly refuse to learn, and such proposals come in for outright ridicule in informed gun rights circles (“The Assault Weapons Ban Is a Stupid Idea Pushed by Stupid People,” Jun 13, 2016, The Federalist), giving examples of celebrity Tweets demanding a ban on automatic weapons, without understanding that (as noted) automatic weapons, as distinct from semi-automatic weapons, have already been banned for decades. Trying to solve a crime problem by banning “assault rifles” makes no more sense than trying to solve the problem of illegal street racing by banning pinstripes.

By the way, the “AR” in the AR-15 stands for “ArmaLite,” its original manufacturer, not “assault rifle.”

This set of facts brings us to the conclusion, the main point of this extensive discussion about types of guns, that any kind of ban against guns capable of killing people would inevitably ban guns capable of killing deer, and probably also ban guns capable of killing rabbits and squirrels. Hunting inherently requires heavier firepower, so any ban based upon firepower would ban hunting. While I don’t hunt as a matter of personal choice, I support those who do and recognize that it is an economic necessity for many.

Outside the United States

Another myth that I keep hearing is that only the United States experiences mass killings and that other modern nations do not. When then-President Barack Obama made exactly that claim (“Is Barack Obama correct that mass killings don’t happen in other countries?”, Jun 22, 2015), PoltiFact rated it “mostly false.” Part of the problem is that mass shootings are so extremely rare statistically – a point made above – that a few occurrences can skew the data especially in countries with small populations: Finland has more than twice the per capita death rate from mass shootings as the United States, but had only two incidents with death tolls of eight and 10; Switzerland has more than 10 times the per capita death rate, but had only one mass shooting that killed 14, and Norway has almost 10 times the per capita death rate, with one mass shooting that killed 67. China, with a huge population, has mass stabbings that are not uncommon, but these do not count in these statistics because they are not shootings.

Of the 18 public mass shootings (excluding acts of war, terrorism, and genocide) occurring within the past several decades with the worst death tolls, 7 were in the United States but 11 were not, spread out among a wide variety of places including Norway, South Korea, Turkey, Tunisia, Australia, Russia, Colombia, the West Bank, Uganda, China, and Sudan (“Mass shootings: How U.S. gun culture compares with the rest of the world”, Feb 15, 2018, The Washington Post).

Australia did ban all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns in 1996, but it is a very different place from the United States: while comprising a vast amount of land, most of it is uninhabited and uninhabitable, so – contrary to the Crocodile Dundee public image – 89% of Australians live in urban areas along the coast. (Culturally, that makes Australians about as much wilderness bush dwellers as Rhode Islanders, who are 91% urban according to the 2010 Census.) In order to effect the rifle and shotgun ban, the Australian government compensated citizens for the seizure of 600,000 weapons at a cost of half a billion US dollars (“Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post”, Dec 17, 2012, The Washington Post). The United States has 13 times the population of Australia and 300-400 times as many guns in private hands, presenting substantial practical obstacles to a comparable ban even beyond political and legal issues. Australians concede that their approach would fail, probably disastrously, across the ocean: “In the United States, even if the political opposition could be overcome, such widespread appropriation of private property and limits on personal liberties would most likely be met with fierce, even physical, resistance.” (“Australia’s Gun Laws Are Not a Model for America”, Feb 23, 2018, The New York Times).

The Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Massachusetts state quarter showing "minute man." (Photo: US Mint, public domain)
Massachusetts state quarter showing “minute man.”
(Photo: US Mint, public domain)

“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.” – Text of the Second Amendment

In 2008, the United States Supreme Court settled a longstanding debate about the meaning and interpretation of the Second Amendment, ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that, as the syllabus explains, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

Rhode Island has always had a similar clause in its state constitution, first adopted after the Dorr Rebellion, with no qualifying phrasing about militia or common defense: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (An excellent summary of the history by Claudia J. Matzko, “The Obfuscation of Rhode Island’s Clearly Expressed Constitutional Right to Bear Arms: Mosby v. Devine”, was published in the Spring 2006 issue of the Roger Williams University Law Review.)

It is common today to ridicule the view that the right to keep and bear arms was historically seen as a check against government oppression, but I’ve personally held in my hands the manuscript notes of Elisha Reynolds Potter that he took at the Rhode Island constitutional convention, noting in the margin next to the relevant clause that it was “the ultimate protection of rights” and “the last resort.” Potter was no fringe politician or radical crank: in addition to serving as one of the leaders of the convention in 1842, he served as adjutant general of the state (the commander of the militia) from 1835 to 1836, represented the state in the US House from 1843 to 1845, and was an associate justice of the state Supreme Court from 1868 until his death in 1882. Two decades before the American Civil War and only months after a bunch of Rhode Islanders under Thomas Wilson Dorr tried actual armed revolt, Potter – a hardcore anti-Dorrite – defended the right of the people to do it.

This was not a merely theoretical dispute. In Luther v. Borden, a lawsuit arising out of the Dorr Rebellion, the US Supreme Court ruled “[t]hat the sovereignty of the people is supreme, and may act in forming government without the assent of the existing government”, “[t]hat the right to adopt necessarily includes the right to abolish, to reform, and to alter any existing form of government, and to substitute in its stead any other that they may judge better adapted to the purposes intended”, and “[t]hat the exercise of this right, which is a right original, sovereign, and supreme, and not derived from any other human authority, may be, and must be, effected in such way and manner as the people may for themselves determine.” Put bluntly, the Supreme Court ruled in 1849 that revolution, in principle, could be legal and therefore the courts should stay out of it.

In the modern context, the Second Amendment allows citizens to be armed not to fight off an army fully equipped with tanks and airplanes, but sufficiently to severely inconvenience a government bent on totalitarian oppression. The United States has no magical immunity to the kinds of extreme horrors undertaken by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao such as locking up people in concentration camps, but whatever immunity we do have rests upon our traditions, customs, and rule of law, especially our constitutional principles. As David French well expressed this idea, “The argument is not that a collection of random citizens should be able to go head-to-head with the Third Cavalry Regiment. That’s absurd…. Rather, for the Second Amendment to remain a meaningful check on state power, citizens must be able to possess the kinds and categories of weapons that can at least deter state overreach, that would make true authoritarianism too costly to attempt.” (“Assault Weapons Preserve the Purpose of the Second Amendment”, Feb 21, 2018, National Review).

Law professor Sanford Levinson published one of the first liberal critiques of the issue several decades ago in a now-famous article in the Yale Law Review titled “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” in which he wrote, “For too long, most members of the legal academy have treated the Second Amendment as the equivalent of an embarrassing relative, whose mention brings a quick change of subject to other, more respectable, family members.” Levinson was (and still is) an advocate of gun control, which he admitted: “I cannot help but suspect that the best explanation for the absence of the Second Amendment from the legal consciousness of the elite bar, including that component found in the legal academy, is derived from a mixture of sheer opposition to the idea of private ownership of guns and the perhaps subconscious fear that altogether plausible, perhaps even ‘winning,’ interpretations of the Second Amendment would present real hurdles to those of us supporting prohibitory regulation.” Almost 20 years later, with the Heller ruling, Levinson’s fear would prove true.

The NRA has enormous political leverage, but not primarily because of money: the organization has five million members who are ready and willing to vote their conscience, and is therefore by far the largest truly grass-roots lobbying organization in the nation. This is the way democracy is supposed to work, not an aberration of it.

Nevertheless, the practical concern with application of the Second Amendment is about self-defense and has almost as little to do with the right to revolution as with the right to hunt deer. The reason the Second Amendment inspires visceral passion in a large fraction of the American people is that its primary modern importance is as a statement of fundamental philosophy: an individual who must rely upon the protection of others is an infant rather than a citizen. This is not to denigrate the critical role of voluntary mutual assistance and collective action in American tradition and culture, from barn raisings to the militia. In the United States, the military has never been an isolated or elite social class divorced from its composition as citizen soldiers who are citizens first.

Yet, telling people that it is in their best interests to allow themselves to be disarmed and trust the police to protect them is, in fact, treating them as infants. (It is also understandably difficult to convince those marginalized by society that they should trust the police at all, but that’s a different issue.) Nor is this vast and diverse nation well-served by a one-size-fits-all approach to guns: there are many places where the nearest police are over an hour away, so calling them for help in an emergency is pointless.

Arming teachers (another proposal supported by President Trump) was quickly dismissed as crazy by those in the urban Northeast, but in a Texas county that covers more territory than the state of Rhode Island but has only six police officers and 115 school students, the school district understandably decided that arming teachers is the best way to protect the children in their care (“As gun debate roils on, teachers in this Texas school are already armed”, Feb 22, 2018, The Los Angeles Times). I support deferring to local authorities on this: if the school board, the superintendent, the principal, and the teachers decide to allow teachers to volunteer to be armed and undergo appropriate training, they are likely the best judges of their own situation.

Each of us casually trusts our fellow citizens not to kill us multiple times per day. We walk on the sidewalk trusting that no stranger driving a car will decide to mount the curb and mow us down in a murderous rage. We eat in restaurants trusting that no stranger at another table will use the knife placed conveniently in front of them to stab us. We use self-service filling stations trusting that no stranger will idiotically decide to light a cigarette. We trust strangers walking past our houses to not be arsonists.

Philosophically, this is the principle that underlies the Second Amendment: whether against crime or foreign invasion, there is no one else to protect us – there is only us.