Wednesday, January 02, 2013

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.

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