Debating guns

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I spent two hours Thursday evening debating guns with William Yanes on the Dave Congalton local talk show on 920 KVEC. You can listen to the two hours here.

Hour 1:

Hour 2:

(Note, I’ve archived copies of all of my radio appearances and guest hosting gigs. You can find them using the navigation bar at the top, or there’s a direct link here.)

Yanes grew up around guns and did some email marketing for a company that sold “furniture” (e.g. aftermarket stocks, trigger guards, and the famous “shoulder thing that goes up” etc.) for AR-15 platform weapons. I expected Yanes to be a little more knowledgeable about guns and gun laws than your average gun control zealot, and he was, but not by much.

Balancing rights and responsibilities

I realize that there’s both good and bad that can come from private ownership of firearms. There’s the 2nd Amendment which is purposefully a bulwark against a tyrannical government. There’s the related benefit of the use of firearms for self-defense. A distant third is the use of firearms for hunting.

Conversely, firearms in the wrong hands can facilitate evil: from the simple armed robbery to the mass casualty shootings that seem to be happening with increasing regularity.

I look at those two competing sides and I can accept things like the government’s NICS background check system to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from getting guns. In the states that still allow private party transfers of firearms, I would open up NICS so that a private seller could do a background check on a buyer if they chose to. (I don’t think this is necessary if the seller knows the buyer well because they are family or a good friend of many years. This would be more for online ads that result in a sale.) Current law does not allow a private party to run a NICS check.

I look at those two sides and oppose waiting periods longer than the background check takes—something that typically takes only a few minutes. Why? Because it’s not hard to imagine situations like the one that resulted in Carol Bowne’s death.

Whenever a “commonsense” gun law is proposed, I look at both those sides—those competing goods—and weigh them. For Yanes, it’s an easier calculation.

Only seeing one side

Yanes is a type of anti-gun zealot that I must admit I’ve seldom really encountered before.

For Yanes, self-defense with firearms is a myth. So Yanes looks at those same scales I see and one of the trays is empty. It makes things so much easier.

Yanes repeatedly referred to the “good guy with a gun” myth as we talked. Yanes never gave me a number, though I believe I figured it out below, but talking to him, you’d be safe believing that the number was so close to zero that it isn’t really worth debating.

Ironically, though we didn’t know it then, at the same time, in Oklahoma City, two armed bystanders killed a shooter who opened fire on a people in a restaurant.

A look at the numbers

In recent years, firearms deaths in the United States have hovered around the low 30,000s. About 2/3rds of those deaths are suicides. Another 8,000+ are gang- or drug-related. Several hundred are justifiable homicides by law enforcement (or armed citizens). The remaining 1,000 and change are the common murders; the estranged husband killing a wife, a robbery at a convenience store that ends in gunfire.

While each and every one of those deaths is tragic, the benefits of guns in civilian hands should prohibit the kind of wholesale ban that Yanes advocates.

Yanes called it the myth of self-defense. The smallest number of defensive gun uses annually, derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey is 108,000 a year.

A study on gun violence ordered by President Obama, however, includes this:

Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million (Kleck, 2001a), in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008 (BJS, 2010).

Defensive gun use is a “myth,” but it’s also “a common occurrence.”

Even taking the absolute worst numbers for my position—108,000 annually—that means that guns are used defensively 10 times more often than they result in a death at the hands of a criminal. (I’d encourage you to listen to the audio if you have time, because I elaborate on how the under-counting of defensive gun uses is accomplished.)

Yanes’ prescription

So what solution does Yanes propose? Yanes wanted all semi-automatic firearms—and he made it clear that he knew the breadth of firearms that that encompasses—be treated like fully automatic guns.

And here’s where some of Yanes’ ignorance of gun laws came in. Yanes believed that fully automatic weapons are illegal to purchase or own by civilians. They are, but only in California and a handful of other states (Hollywood prop masters excepted). In most U.S. states, you can buy a machine gun if you can a) find one made before 1986 and registered with the federal government, b) Pay for a $200 tax stamp, c) undergo an FBI background check that includes submitting fingerprints and typically takes upward of 9 months to a year.

At least Yanes is honest and has an internally consistent position. Too many in the gun control movement are fixated on the AR-15 platform and want it banned. When you show them a picture of a Mini-14 with a wood stock like the one pictured below, they’re OK with that one, even though there is a negligible functional difference between the two.

Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle

No, Yanes would ban that one too.

We didn’t get into exactly how he would go about with the “gun buyback” that would encompass 80% or so of all handguns sold in the past 30 years and a vast majority of the rifles as well.

I maintain that such an effort would likely cause a second civil war. We’ll find out soon here in California, because I expect Gov. Gavin Newsom to make a push for that very soon, 2nd Amendment be damned.

Evil will find a way

Ironically, two of the types of guns Yanes would deign to allow us to keep are pump action shotguns and revolvers—the two weapons used by the Santa Fe High School shooter last week.

Which brings me to the point I keep returning to, especially when it comes to these mass casualty shootings, whether at a school, restaurant, movie theater or wherever: Evil will find a way.

Yanes believes that getting guns completely out of civilian hands will prevent school shootings. And, by definition, if you could, I suppose it would. But it wouldn’t stop someone using bombs like at the Boston Marathon bombing. It wouldn’t stop someone from taking a large truck and mowing down dozens on a pedestrian thoroughfare as occurred in Nice, France.

But it’s the law-abiding who would be the only ones who would even consider turning in their guns; the criminals would not. So the number of defensive gun uses mentioned above—whether that’s 108,000 a year or 2.5 million or something in between—would go to zero.  And the crime rate would almost certainly go up.

Reflections on debating guns

I don’t know if Yanes thinks I’m heartless loon in the sway of the NRA and gun manufacturers. If Yanes’ views on the NRA and politicians who oppose “commonsense gun laws” are any guide, then he probably genuinely believes that we’ve all sold our souls for some cold, hard cash. (For the record, I’m still waiting for my envelope full of $20s. Please contact me directly for my mailing address.)

The simple fact is this: I believe that the social good of civilian gun ownership in preventing tyranny and enabling law-abiding people to defend themselves from criminals outweighs the evil that is the 30,000+ gun deaths every year.

I’m not willing to sacrifice those 100,000+ individuals (on the very low end) who use a gun every year to defend themselves for a chance—not a certainty, a chance—that someone intent on doing evil will be unable to acquire a gun and simply give up.

I doubt that either of us expected to change the other one’s mind, but I hope we learned a little bit about where each other was coming from. I hope we both believe that the other is misguided, not evil.

For those who are interested, helpful gun debate links are after the break.

Helpful gun debate links

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Thresholds of Violence: How school shootings catch on.” is a must-read.

There Are Fewer School Shootings Now Than During the 1990s

Rand Corporation’s gun-policy analysis on defensive gun uses

Estimates for the prevalence of DGU span wide ranges and include high-end estimates—for instance, 2.5 million DGUs per year—that are not plausible given other information that is more trustworthy, such as the total number of U.S. residents who are injured or killed by guns each year. At the other extreme, the NCVS estimate of 116,000 DGU incidents per year almost certainly underestimates the true number.

The CDC came up with a defensive gun use number closer to the high end mentioned above and kept it secret.

Reason magazine: How to Count the Defensive Use of Guns.

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