Wednesday, January 02, 2013

On Guns and Gun Control, Part III

It seems to me that whenever we have a high-profile shooting in America, talk of renewing the ban on "assault weapons" is among the first responses. This makes sense, because "assault weapon" is a provocative term that currently has no less-provocative term (in part because it describes a largely nonsensical grouping of weapons). It's hard to sound rational defending "assault weapons," and there's no good alternative term to use.

But I certainly do defend the use of "assault weapons." Back to the 2009 report - 5% of the criminal weapons examined were assault weapons; 75% were handguns. This is an obvious, intuitive result. Assault weapons are not easily concealable but are good for winning gunfights; handguns are much more easily concealable and are fairly bad at winning gunfights. Legitimate personal defense scenarios are gunfights almost by definition, whereas a gunfight is obviously anathema to a gun crime gone well. Why worry about "assault weapons" (which I think I might start calling "home defense weapons") and not guns that are not only suited to crime but actually used in crime?

I don't mean to imply that the handgun is a "criminal's weapon." I only mean to state the self-evident fact that if one is planning to commit a crime with a gun, a handgun is most likely to be the gun best suited to the crime.

We should take a moment here to address the question of why handguns are not often used in mass shootings. I don't know if any studies have been done on this subject, but I think the truth is that the weapon used doesn't matter much. As I understand it, mass shootings tend to occur at close range and the victims tend to be unarmed. In that sort of scenario, any gun will allow the shooter to kill a large number of people in a short amount of time. Sandy Hook involved magazines that can hold 30 rounds, which is a lot for a rifle. Banning high-capacity magazines (as California does) in response seems quixotic. Ejecting an empty magazine and loading a fresh one is a matter of seconds - a long time in a gunfight, but a very short time in a massacre. The relevant question in a mass-shooting scenario is not how many rounds the shooter's weapon holds, but how many rounds the shooter has brought with him. It is only when somebody starts shooting back that having a high-capacity magazine is a material advantage.

So back to gun control. Discussion of gun policy, and gun philosophy, in America always seems to come back to the Second Amendment, so I'll start with some thoughts on that. As I've already said, I think the Second Amendment was inspired by an assumption that was demonstrably wrong even in the late 18th century. The notion that an armed populace is a free populace is simply wrong, and always has been. However, being predicated on a false premise does not make the Second Amendment any less the will of the people.

What frustrates me most about the Second Amendment is how people on both sides of the "gun control debate" seem to twist it. Can there be any serious doubt that the Framers intended the Second Amendment to promote a thriving militia system (however wrong they may have been about the utility of such a system)?

If that be so (and I think it is), I do not see how the Second Amendment can be seen to guarantee the right to keep arms in the home. As Posner has correctly pointed out, a rational militia commander might well want his troops to keep their weapons in a central location (such as the muster point), so when the militia is called out there is no risk that somebody shows up without their gun (or some other essential military kit). That is, in fact, how many 18th century militia operated - Concord and Lexington wouldn't have happened otherwise. And certainly a thriving militia system (which I don't think we have) doesn't imply the right to keep a gun in a "functional" state, as Heller held. Even if the militia is going to be called out to resist a court judgment (as it sometimes was), there is time to assemble one's weapon.

At the same time, a thriving militia system does imply the right to own weapons of the sort in common use by the militaries of the day. The modern notion that peaceable citizens have no business owning automatic weapons is thoroughly anti-militia. A modern militia's armory should look like the National Guard's (which I don't think is a militia, although it is so designated by United States law) - only owned by private citizens.

To put this in perspective, I think the Second Amendment guarantees the right to privately own a main battle tank, but not the right to keep even a single-shot pistol in one's home, let alone loaded. I don't think either side of the gun control debate would be happy with that outcome, but I think that's what the amendment says. This is why I think the Second Amendment is largely superfluous when discussing questions of weaponry, even in the United States - it's a cultural touchstone, but it addresses an entirely different question than occupies current gun politics.

So, leaving the Second Amendment aside, here are two few features of gun control laws that I'd like to see that are not, to my knowledge, common:

1. A positive correlation between how heavily regulated a weapon is and how suited it is to most crimes. The current American approach is to regulate a weapon based on its potential for mass carnage. This seems ... not so much bad, as just silly. To be sure, a heavy machine gun can kill more people in a shorter period of time than can a snub-nosed revolver. The machine gun also weighs well over 100 pounds and is almost five and a half feet long. It has features that make it inherently difficult to commit crimes with. The revolver, while far less able as a weapon, has features that make it much more attractive than the machine gun as a weapon of crime. It isn't so much that regulation of the machine gun is bad so much as the relative lack of regulation of the handgun is absurd. We have a lot of data on what kinds of guns are actually used to commit crimes, and our gun regulation doesn't seem to be aware of it.

2. A shift in focus from the right to own to the ability to use. American gun control laws currently seem to focus on making sure that only the right sort of people can buy guns - people who are not felons, not mentally ill in the psychiatric sense, and so forth. That by itself doesn't seem bad to me, but the truth is, even a paragon of civic virtue is the wrong sort of person to own a gun if he doesn't train holistically in its use. It seems absurd to me that one can own a gun without demonstrating at least a modicum of proficiency in its use; the truth is it seems absurd to me that one can own a gun without demonstrating proficiency in all things firearm-related on a regular basis. I don't mean to trot out the old "anybody can buy a gun but you need to pass a test to drive a car;" I think cars are much more dangerous than guns (about four times as many automobile deaths as gun deaths in the U.S., despite the fact that we have more civilian-owned guns in the US than passenger vehicles). To me, the only point that needs to be made is that a gun is a weapon, and nobody should own a weapon of any kind without facility in the operation and philosophy of that weapon. We don't legislate philosophy in America, but I think it's ridiculous that we don't even require facility with operation.

That second point is a subset of what I think is the biggest problem with America's gun culture in general: even those who don't own guns are prone to think of them in terms of personal empowerment. I don't think that's the way weapons work. To be honest, I don't even think that weapons are simply tools, a "pro-weapon" view I sometimes hear articulated. I own a shovel, but I do not feel like a bad person because I do not regularly practice shoveling (despite the fact that I am actually fairly bad at shoveling). Weapons are not like that. I don't own a weapon because I do not currently have the income (and previously didn't care to make the time) to regularly practice weaponcraft. A weapon is not just a tool. It's a challenge.

On Guns and Gun Control, Part II

On a significantly less philosophical and significantly more legal note, recent musings on weapons and force - combined with my in-laws' maddeningly unsophisticated discussions of gun politics - have given me occasion to consider my views on gun laws. This, plus the fact that my in-laws' aforesaid maddeningly unsophisticated discussions don't give me an opportunity to explore these views - has led to this post. To begin with, let me be clear on a few of my views. I like guns. I wish I had the disposable income to own one or more. I think they're fun, and useful tools for character improvement. I also think the Second Amendment is appallingly bad policy, and that American gun politics are uncommonly silly. In my previous post I expanded some on why I think guns can be good. So let me start with the Second Amendment. Hamilton gives what I think is the most sensible defense of the Second Amendment in Federalist 29, when he says "if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people, while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights."

This statement is probably true as far as it goes. The problem is that it describes a scenario that has never, or only very rarely, actually obtained. The "discipline and use of arms" is hard. There is a reason that it can consume a person's entire lifespan. Acquiring it is burdensome in both time and money (in fact, we have always had to pay people to get any good at it). For these reasons, a militia is always likely to be radically less combat effective than a standing army.

When has a militia ever prevailed against a standing army without, at the least, turning itself professional as well? Certainly not in our own revolution, despite the historical fantasies espoused by the Framers and other 18th-century proponents of militia. When Elbredge Gerry said the use of a militia is "to prevent the establishment of a standing army" or Madison said that a militia was "the best and most natural defense of a free country," they were simply, you know, wrong. A militia is not an effective defense against or substitute for professional soldiers, and never has been.

And yet it is a militia that the Second Amendment was principally framed to protect. Now, I don't think that a militia is useless. I think it's a very useful adjunct to a professional soldiery, and an institution that I would be happy to see strengthened. But the Second Amendment is not, I think, very good at doing that. The Second Amendment is premised on the notion that a militia must be armed, and thus protects the body politic's right to be armed. This is certainly true, as far as it goes - but it doesn't go very far. A bunch of guys with weapons is a militia, but it's not a very effective army - the "discipline and use of arms" is a necessary component as well (indeed, the very lack of this quality is why militia tend not to be very effective armies). And what does the Second Amendment do to promote that? Nothing.

Of course, it's a constitution - providing for a bare minimum is not necessarily a bad quality. Promoting the discipline and use of arms is a role properly left to the national politics. So what do the national politics do to promote the discipline and use of arms? About as much as the Second Amendment.

Which is why I think American gun politics are uncommonly silly.

I could probably afford to buy a gun, even in my currently impoverished state, if Thayet and I really thought bare ownership of a firearm was important. But I see no justification for owning a weapon that I have not mastered, or am not committed to the process for mastering. As I said in my last post, a weapon is designed to kill, put in a coma, paralyze, or dismember an organism. If I can't make (or am not learning to make) my weapon do that when my heart is racing, visibility is poor, the threats are not known ahead of time, and I am out of my gourd with terror - in short, in the circumstances in which it would likely be justified that I use my weapon for its intended purpose - then I cannot operate my weapon and I have no business owning it. That skill can be learned, and there are people in my general area who can teach it to me, but it takes a lot of time and money. Responsible weapon ownership takes a lot of time and money - a lot more time and money than weapon acquisition takes.

Yet it is acquisition, and storage, that American gun politics centers on - even to the deliberate obfuscation of the discipline and use of arms that makes gun acquisition a morally defensible activity. I am appalled at how few of my fellow citizens seem to understand even the basic vocabulary of firearms, and even more appalled at the focus of gun control efforts. The Sandy Hook responses I've read (or heard at family gatherings) generally make me cringe along these lines.

A sensible approach to gun politics in America, I think, depends first on whether a person believes that individuals have a right to use firearms in personal defense. As a matter of law, they do - as the Supreme Court found in District of Columbia v. Heller - but one can still think that decision is a bad reading of the Second Amendment, or that the Second Amendment itself is bad policy with respect to self defense. Assuming one does believe in a right to firearm self defense, the next question is what sorts of restrictions on gun ownership best support the right while effectuating the least amount of undesirable consequences.

The least controversial self defense situation I can think of is a home invasion, in which an attacker enters the home of an innocent victim and offers the resident or residents with imminent paralysis, vegetation, or death without regard to persuasion. What sort of weapon would be useful in that scenario? It should be compact, because quarters may be cramped. It should be as easy to aim as possible, both to raise the chances of incapacitating the foe and to minimize the risk of hitting unintended targets. Because close-range gunfights tend to be particularly short and vicious, it should contain a large number of rounds to ensure that the shooter does not have to reload in a fast-paced fight. For the same reasons of pace, it should have a high rate of fire yet weighty enough to keep recoil manageable (and thus to maintain high accuracy even while firing quickly). Let's take those in reverse order, with some explanatory notes for readers who aren't familiar with firearms vocabulary.

Rate of fire means the weapon would either be automatic or semi-automatic. A semi-automatic gun is one that shoots once every time you pull the trigger. This is pretty much how most people expect a gun to behave, but I've heard people condemning "semi-automatic" weapons as unnecessary for law-abiding citizens to own in the wake of Sandy Hook, so it bears saying. Maybe "semi-automatic" sounds scary because it has the word "automatic" in it; I don't know. Either way, there are only two alternatives. The first is a gun that doesn't shoot every time you pull the trigger, which is obviously undesirable in a self-defense scenario (this sort of gun does have desirable qualities, but I won't get into them here). The second is an "automatic" gun, which shoots more than one bullet every time you pull the trigger, as long as you hold the trigger down long enough. Since the act of pulling the trigger is a major source of a gun's inaccuracy, this obviously is desirable in a self-defense weapon.

High capacity means, obviously, a magazine (that's the part of the gun that holds the spare bullets) with a high capacity. In a perfect world, of course, one never needs more than one bullet to paralyze, vegetate, or kill a target; in actual combat scenarios, that is not the case. In a longer-ranged firefight the second or two it takes a practiced shooter to replace an empty magazine may not be much of a liability. In a very close-range firefight such as a home invasion scenario is likely to present, being unable to shoot for even a few seconds is a serious liability - and if the victim of the home invasion is not a practiced shooter, switching magazines may take many seconds, which is obviously worse.

How easy it is to aim a gun is a factor of many factors, but one of the simplest (and least understood, I find) is simply how long the weapon is. To understand this, suppose you are ten feet away from a very small dot on the wall and told to point a stick at that dot. If you have a ten foot long stick, this is a trivial task. If you have a nine foot stick, it is still fairly easy. If you have a one inch stick, it is extraordinarily difficult. Thus, an ideal home defense weapon is as long as possible without being so long it is difficult to wield in cramped confines - larger than a handgun, but shorter than a gun designed for maximum accuracy (which, the reader should now be able to intuit, tend to be very long). Other features such as a pistol grip, a collapsible or telescoping stock (the stock is the portion of the gun pushed against the shooter's shoulder to help stabilize it), or the non-trigger hand being able to hold the gun as far up its length as possible (barrels get hot as they shoot, so a plastic shroud around the barrel will help with this) will also tend to hit the sweet spot of short-but-easy-to-point (about two feet of overall length, as it happens).

This sort of weapon looks very much like the weapon used in the Sandy Hook shootings, and very unlike the sort of weapon used in the majority of U.S. gun crimes. It also looks much more like the sort of weapon that would actually be useful in militia service than the sort of weapon used in the majority of U.S. gun crimes. If these self-evident facts surprised many of my fellow citizens, I should be as saddened as I should be unsurprised.

Indeed, many of the features of this, our ideal home-defense gun, are features of what in the United States is called an "assault weapon" - the high-capacity magazine, the folding stock, the pistol grip, the barrel shroud, and the fact that it is a short weapon that is not a handgun are all "assault weapon" characteristics. If it seems strange that a weapon optimized for home defense should be described as "assault," you begin to understand why gun-literate people detest the term "assault weapon."

The term "assault weapon" sounds suspiciously like "assault rifle," which almost everybody has a vague idea is the sort of weapon militaries use, which in turn raises the vague suspicion that anybody who owns an "assault weapon" wants so much firepower that he or she is probably planning something nefarious. The term trades on the general ignorance of firearms, which is why I find it detestable from a civics point of view. An "assault rifle" is an automatic weapon that is long enough and powerful enough to be accurate over a range of several hundred yards ("power" in this case refers not to how likely the weapon is to paralyze, vegetate, or kill, but to how fast its bullets travel - gravity being what it is, the faster a bullet covers a given distance, the less it will be deflected by gravity). The desirability of such a weapon for armies should be obvious; just as equally, it should be plain that those characteristics are not particularly useful in either personal defense or criminal scenarios (neither of which tend to involve ranges of several hundred yards). While automatic fire is useful in both personal defense and criminal situations, the term "assault weapon" specifically excludes automatic weapons. This is because automatic weapons are already heavily regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934, as amended (which has been surprisingly successful in keeping automatic weapons out of the hands of criminals - for instance, a 2009 report by the California Attorney General reported only 2% of that year's gun crimes committed with automatic weapons). For this reason, the term "assault weapon" has always been used (including in the 1994 federal assault weapons ban) to refer to semi-automatic weapons only.

Having discussed the desirable characteristics of a useful home defense weapon, it may be instructive to discuss the desirable characteristics of a useful criminal weapon. This is a somewhat broader problem, since the definition of "crime" is so broad - robbing a U.S. Army base, for instance, calls for a very different weapon than robbing an isolated, distracted, unarmed man in the dead of night. However, if we assume that most criminals are essentially predatory (that is, that they plan their crimes to maximize their power relative to that of their victims), then there is one desirable feature of a criminal gun that jumps out at us: conceability. Above all, a criminal gun should be one that is difficult to perceive until the very last moment. It need not be particularly powerful, since it will be used at very close range against a target that is extremely unlikely to be wearing body armor (few gun crime plans involve "pull a gun on a guy in body armor"). It need not be particularly high-capacity or have a particularly high rate of fire, since it isn't intended to get into a gunfight. But it does need to minimize the risk that it will be seen until the desired moment, so as to maximize the time available to commit the crime before armed response personnel show up.

It should, in short, be a handgun (or pistol, if you prefer). Even our hypothetical home defense gun is difficult to keep concealed (even two feet of gun is a lot to hide). And indeed, this is what we observe - that same California report, for instance, listed 75% of California's 2009 gun crimes commissioned with handguns. Other studies agree that most gun crimes are committed with handguns.

To understand how weird this is, we need to take a step back and remember my earlier point that (in general) the longer a gun is, the easier it is to aim. Because they are the shortest of all guns, handguns are the hardest to aim. They are, in fact, fairly bad at killing people - desirable only if one is choosing a gun primarily for portability or conceability. In fact, as of 2007, the United States Marines have stopped issuing handguns to virtually all of their officers, replacing them with short assault rifles. Handguns are simply not very good tools for killing people - but if the victim is unarmed and at very close range, a handgun's deficiencies are minimized.

Which brings us to my thoughts on gun control - probably best for another post.

On Guns and Gun Control, Part I

Meshparjai saw Brave the other day, and was surprisingly not-scared by the whole thing. This reminded me of the Disney Brave weapons set ("this is my princess axe!") that Thayet was planning to get her - and, of course, the fencing ("sword fighting," for those WMA snobs who can't admit that fencing is fencing) lessons that Thayet and I want for her in a few years.

And then, you know, Sandy Hook happened.

I talk a lot about force in this blog, but I've rarely directly discussed the issue of physical violence. It's been on my mind a lot lately, especially as I look forward to finally getting a job that will allow me and my family to pursue some more of our martial interests.

It is axiomatic to me that a responsible person should know how to kill people - so axiomatic that, to be honest, I have a hard time dissecting why. On a pragmatic level, it's always possible that one will be called upon by necessity to kill - but the truth is, killing isn't a pragmatic issue to me. It's a moral issue. It is people of force who claim the Kingdom of God - and while physical violence isn't the purest expression of force, I think it is part of it. All things being equal, someone who has mastered the art of physical violence - a truly dangerous person - is, I think, more a person of force than one who has not.

Why do I think this? What is force? The best definition I have for force is to effectuate one's will in spite of contravening factors. That can be the agency of another, but also (in a way) oneself - in fact, it is this sense, I think, that Jesus has in mind when he says that people of force claim the Kingdom of God. It is not easy to be Christian, and the greatest obstacles to being Christian come from ourselves. Only a person of force can overcome the obstacles they place in their own way (I don't mean to imply that an act of will is sufficient, but I do think it is, in the ordinary course, necessary). While force often includes overcoming obstacles - that is, overpowering other people - it is ultimately about self-mastery.

I think this is something you see reflected in all of our great martial traditions - in part, I think, because the serious study of arms forces us to self-examine in extreme or unusual ways. This is one reason the study of firearms and the study of swords appeals to me more than the study of unarmed combat. Unarmed combat is probably a much more practical discipline, but the point is not only to carry on (or in) one's person the ability to kill. The point is to make one's peace with killing. When are we killing to kill? Why?

Nothing I can think of - short of military or police service - encapsulates these questions better than ownership of a weapon. The objective of combat (other than, you know, survival) is often phrased as "incapacitation," and weapons are designed to "incapacitate" people. That means either (i) inflicting enough psychological horror that a person chooses to submit, (ii) severing enough limb muscles or limb bones to render a person incapable of threatening action regardless of intention, or (iii) disrupting enough of the central nervous system to render a person incapable of threatening action regardless of intention.

A sword is designed to incapacitate through either (ii) or (iii); a firearm through (iii) alone. This seems to me like a worthwhile thing to meditate on. As the old saw says, you should never point a weapon at somebody you aren't willing to kill. Or, to put it more precisely, you should never point a weapon at somebody you aren't willing to kill, turn into a vegetable, or render quadriplegic.

It may seem macabre (or perhaps it doesn't), but surely we can all imagine situations in which we would be willing to do that to another human being - and if we truly can't, I think that's an important thing to know about ourselves. If we can imagine such a situation, we should be able to kill, vegetable-ify, or paralyze a person without hesitation. Of course, doing that to a person is hard; even Melkor admits that human beings are pretty much hard-wired not to do that to each other. By overcoming that hesitation we render ourselves more dangerous, and thus more forceful.

I don't mean to imply that we should all aspire to be sociopaths. I can't think of any legal (or desirable) ways to truly inure oneself to killing anyway, except for combat service in a shooting war. But by practicing arms, I think we can increase our self-mastery, which is good for the character in situations both violent and non-violent.

This leads me back to Sandy Hook, which is a subject for another post.