Some Thoughts on Firearms

A while back, I watched a very moving video of a speech given by a student from the Stoneham Douglas High School, which had been the scene of a horrific mass shooting not long before. I also watched, and read, some nasty commentary directed at her and her classmates, as they became vocal, visible, and popular advocates for reform of our gun laws here in the U.S. I am very disturbed by the nature of the attacks on these kids, who are absolutely doing the right thing by making their voices heard.

I have given lots of thought to the issues around firearms, and, like a number of positions, my mind has changed the further I've delved into things. I have considered history, philosophy, psychology, and statistics when thinking about it, and since my initial position was as a gun-owner and moderate enthusiast, no one can claim that I am merely putting forth a gut reaction, nor am I merely constructing a post-hoc rationalization for my feelings.

One of the most obvious points to address is that here in the United States, we have the Second Amendment to our Constitution, adopted in 1791, which states: "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." The wording of this couldn't be more obscure, or grammatically problematic. Yet, it is always the object pointed to by ardent gun-enthusiasts. The history around this subject clearly indicates that many of the founders were suspicious of standing armies in general, and wanted state-run militias to counter a possible threat by any standing federal army. This was understandable given their recent experience having broken away from England. I've seen lots of posts containing quotations by the founders and others, for these are of course compiled and promulgated by the NRA and other gun rights advocacy groups. As I've scanned them I have noted that many, perhaps most, of them refer directly to militias, which are noted in the actual amendment as "well-regulated." One interesting thing I've observed is the irony of including quotes from the Federalist Papers in support of anything in the Bill of Rights, as the Federalists opposed it's inclusion, even though Madison ended up being the one who presented it - he had apparently changed his stance, something which we should take note of. Another thing we should remember is that Alexander Hamilton (another author of The Federalist Papers) died in a tragic and pointless duel with pistols against Aaron Burr. I'll touch on this a bit later.

I don't believe any reasonable person would deny another the right of self-defense; this is essentially the point put forth by those using quotes from the founders, for most of those are concerned either with the self-defense of a state against a tyrannical federal government, or with defending oneself or one's loved ones. One thing I would question is whether the Second Amendment, as ratified, has anything to do with an individual's personal self-defense vis-à-vis firearms, for there is nothing in its language to indicate such. Laying that problem aside for a moment, it is reasonable to ask, however, about the means available to defend oneself, or, rather, what means should be available. Any means at all? What if I feel the need to have a hand-grenade to ward off multiple possible attackers? Or a fully-automatic rifle? Perhaps a chemical or biological weapon? Unless you agree that I (or anyone else) should have all of these means at my disposal, you have already admitted that there is a discussion to be had concerning limitations on available weaponry for individuals. I see no a priori reason to halt the discussion at semi-automatic rifles or handguns, but that seems to be where many on the pro-gun side of this debate have planted their flag. In fact, there is no reason why firearms must be on the list of available measures at all - at least, there's no antecedent reason based in the Second Amendment or in the bare concept of self-defensive measures that requires they be included. I feel that the onus is on the gun-advocate to put forth a reason why they should be considered essential, and, if the Second Amendment is used as part of that justification, they must also explain how and why that is or should be the case. I would preface any rebuttal they offer with this: if you appeal to equal force, i.e. an eye for an eye, then you run the risk of vicious cycles of violence through retaliation in kind (because individual human judgment is imperfect and inherently biased), and you also must explain why we would need police or any legal authority whatsoever - why not just let everybody have whatever weapons they want and have the strongest, or the most accurate and fastest shooter, or even the most well-armed and least scrupulous about collateral damage, win?

The psychology of violence is a huge subject; for an excellent primer on it I'd suggest Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" where he talks about not just the psychology behind violence but also the physical systems and causes in our brains that surround violence and violent behaviors. He also discusses game theory and how we can fall into traps like escalating cycles of retaliation. That book had a very big impact on my views towards violence.

My preference on personal protection is to proceed from first principles. I have studied self-defense through traditional martial arts, and I know others who are professionals in the military and the police. Any professional will tell you that without a doubt the concept of self-defense starts with observation, situational awareness, and preparation. If you are worried about the security of your home, fortify it with sturdy doors and windows, an alarm system, and acquire a dog. Ensure that you have at least one room in the house with a very strong door, and keep a cell phone or radio in that room. Don't walk alone in unfamiliar places, keep your eyes open and your wits about you in a crowd, on a bus or plane, and while driving. Notice those around you, and don't let social anxiety or embarrassment prevent you from avoiding a situation that could be dangerous. If you carry large amounts of cash, say for a bank deposit, do it during the daytime and not after work, vary the day and time you make the deposit, and wear different clothes when doing so (i.e. not a shop uniform). Get some training in hand-to-hand combat-arts and mental-preparedness for self defense. Improve your physical conditioning and quit smoking so you can run more than 10 steps. Don't drink alcohol to the point of physical or mental impairment. Learn to manage your ego so you avoid the trap of being unable or unwilling to run away when it's the best option (hint: it usually is), and so you can stay out of situations where your life is at risk for something worth far less, as in the case of Alexander Hamilton's death in a duel over mere journalistic insults. In my mind all of these things should enter into the discussion long before any type of weapon at all is mentioned, much less a firearm. I will state rather bluntly what should at this point be obvious: if you don't take these steps, or at least some of them, then you are simply irresponsible and lazy, unless of course you are permanently impaired, physically or mentally. In fact, your laziness puts the rest of us at a huge risk while doing little to actually increase your own security, and to me that's unacceptable (more on this below when we look at some statistics).

The point of the foregoing discussion is to make clear that the pro-gun side has failed to make an irrefutable claim that firearms have some kind of protected status in debates about self-defense, and my position is that they emphatically do not. I have yet to hear a viable argument on why they should; virtually all of the pro-gun positions boil down to the simplistic: "There are some bad guys with guns so I should have one too."

Let's take a closer look at that. What has always bothered me about that statement is that, first, it paints those opposed to easy-firearm-access as fools willing to risk their lives and everybody else's; without doubt, that is the most common form of the assertion which is often snorted derisively. However, my self-defense discussion above shows that to be untrue, as many of us have carefully considered the options; I certainly don't live in constant fear, worried about imminent attacks; this is primarily because I take common-sense precautions and have made preparations. I understand there's risk, but even if I carried an arsenal of weaponry, wore tactical body armor, and only did my traveling ensconced within a bulletproof pope-mobile, I would still incur some possibility of injury or death. It simply becomes a matter of understanding the level of risk, and how much certain measures reduce that risk; it is also important to understand if other risks may actually increase due to adoption of any given measure. After all, we are part of a society and we must interact with our friends, our neighbors, those with whom we disagree, and even with our enemies - and we must do this daily. We can't have a deadly incident every time we disagree or whenever someone makes a simple or common mistake. It's incumbent upon us all to proactively avoid tragic consequences, and our fellow citizens must be included in that equation - we cannot consider only ourselves or those within our direct family or sphere of influence.

So now let's take a look at a few numbers that tell us something about the risks. These have not been cherry-picked; they are from legitimate and in many cases government run organizations. However, on a side note, I will say that, for such a large scale problem affecting so many, it is notoriously difficult to find actual public numbers on gun violence as there are forces which actively try to thwart any public funding of such research, and they are largely successful. For those reading from outside the United States, these are figures relevant only to the U.S. I did, however, look at homicide rates worldwide, from the the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, for years ranging mainly from 2009 to 2017, and by my count not a single Northern or Western European country had a crime rate higher than the U.S., while admittedly the homicide rate here is still far lower than in quite a few countries (see DATAUNODC).

Guns are used in self defense in 0.9% of contact crimes. When they are used in self defense, they reduce the risk of injury to the defender by a mere 0.1% compared to any defensive action taken at all (4.1% vs 4.2%). These numbers are from the National Crime Victimization Surveys taken between 2007 and 2011. The rate of violent victimization is 0.98% nationwide, in the USA, last year. This means that your chances of being violently victimized while using a gun in self defense and having it save you from injury are less than 0.00001% - yes, that's percent! Even given that minuscule chance, many will still say it's worth it. This is indeed a claim that may be asserted, but then the next legitimate question then becomes one of figuring the actual cost.

A study often cited by pro-gun advocates conducted in 1992 by Kleck and Gertz claims that guns are used 2.4 million times a year in self defense - this was published in 1993. One issue with that particular study is that it relies on self-reporting by gun owners of instances where they have used their weapon; this seems problematic. On it's face, though, that means that one had about a 0.9% chance of using a gun in self defense. When we compare these numbers with the victimization data, it would seem to indicate that guns were used in self defense in almost 92% of all reported violent incidents, which seems astonishing. Clearly the numbers don't jibe with one another. Even if we split the difference evenly between 0.9% and 0.00001%, we come up with less than half a percent chance that any random citizen might have a gun, be victimized while carrying it, and successfully have used it in self defense, escaping without injury. Not very good odds.

According to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, there were approximately 240,000,000 civilian-held firearms in the United States in 1992. If the Kleck study is true, this means that 1% of guns were used annually in self defense, in the U.S., but the parameters of that study indicate that merely divulging the possession of a weapon would count as self-defensive use.

I would have to say that, objectively and as someone who looks at data as a large part of how I make my living, that splitting the difference between those two is excessively generous to the self-reporting study's veracity; the lower numbers are from multi-year surveys & the FBI's national crime statistics, and are more recent. As a scientist I'd say the number is at most two orders of magnitude lower than what is cited in the self-reporting study from 1995 (i.e. more like .004%).

As for the cost, we must look at collateral damage (suicides, innocent bystanders) as well as victims of intentional violence. These don't include only deaths but also injuries from firearms. From 2010 to 2012, suicide deaths by firearm occurred at a rate of 7.19 per 100,000, or .0072% while accidental firearm deaths are much lower, at .0002%. Nonfatal firearm injuries are much higher, with those resulting from an assault having occurred at a rate of .016%, and accidental injuries at a rate of .0036%.

While others may make more concrete the numbers for their own ends, I want to make sure that these numbers are understood in terms of actual people. The total, per 100,000 people, of the above numbers is 11.04. The US had a population of 314,000,000 in 2012. This means that by the best estimates of well-vetted numbers, there were well over 84,000 victims of gun violence, and while many of them were admittedly suicides, non-suicides accounted for the majority, namely 62,000 of those victims. That's 62,000 lives affected by gun violence, where that gun violence was inflicted on them by another person. Most of those are non-fatal (just over 600 were fatal). However, if we add fatal firearm injuries as a result of crime, there were another 32,000 victims.

This is 94,000 of our friends and neighbors, who were victims of gun-violence, which is 0.03% of the population.

So, the calculus that must be performed is thus: is the injury or death of nearly 100,000 of our fellow citizens a cost we are willing to pay so that people can remain lax about taking even the most simple self-defensive measures, outlined above?

What we don't know about the surveys claiming high numbers of self-defensive use of firearms is this: would the behavior of those claiming to have used firearms in self-defense been different if they were not carrying a firearm? Does the act of carrying a weapon affect one's posture and attitude? What factors of human psychology are important in this discussion?

The evolution and physical operation of the human brain in conjunction with how we develop and function as a society has important consequences regarding our behaviors; humans have common tendencies in our thinking that drive our behaviors in remarkably predictable ways. These tendencies are well known and studied, and are often called biases. Given an array of optional responses to particular situations, we have a number of unconscious promptings that result in nearly all humans choosing a predetermined path. The most well known and understood of these is Confirmation Bias. Humans will inflate the importance of evidence that supports a position that they hold, while discounting or outright ignoring the importance of evidence to the contrary: we favor evidence that confirms our own pre-existing notions. An article in Nature talks about the statistics (again, using well vetted numbers) that show how gun violence affects women and people of color disproportionately. These numbers make it easy for white men to select data allowing them to gravely discount the possibility that they will be victims of gun violence; that demographic without any doubt comprises the wide, vocal majority of protesters favoring gun proliferation and ease of ownership.

Another cognitive bias humans possess is called the Availability Heuristic; this is when the mind assumes that things most easily recalled must be the most important and most valid, while things more distant in our minds (or not present at all) have lesser importance or validity. This could explain the ease with which many people dismiss numbers on gun suicides: most have never harbored serious thoughts about suicide and therefore completely discount the possibility that it might affect them or that it has any bearing on gun violence at all, even while victims of gun suicides number in the tens of thousands every year. This bias also has bearing on both sides of the debate under consideration; we are well aware that negative press sells better than positive press, so we see many more stories on negative gun-use outcomes than on positive-use outcomes, which makes those negative stories more present in our minds, activating the availability heuristic. This is of course compounded by confirmation bias, where gun availability advocates will discount those stories, and gun-restriction advocates will inflate the importance and possibly the frequency of such negative occurrences. The only way out of this trap is a scientific, rational look at all of the statistics.

While gathering material for this essay, I came across a video of a supposed “2nd Amendment” speech given by Mark Robinson. In that speech he exhibits a third type of bias, so-called Belief Bias. This is where the subject bases their perception of the strength of an argument not by assessing the logical or factual merits of the argument itself, but on whether the conclusion reached by any given argument is plausible in the subject's mind. The part I'm talking about comes early in the video, linked below, starting at around the 50 second mark. He begins (at the 35 second mark) by telling the audience about some young folks who had been giving statistics and he discounts their information completely (a clear confirmation bias), then he says “There's an element to this that everyone forgets – it's common sense.” The appeal to common sense is, for lack of a better word, the most common manifestation of belief bias. It is common in his mind, so it must be the best argument possible. Notice the interplay of various biases at work here – confirmation bias to discount countervailing evidence immediately followed by belief bias; the speaker knows that most in the audience feel the same about “common sense” (when in fact they merely exhibit an identical belief bias). In fact, the person recording the speech can be heard exclaiming, “Yeah” immediately after that phrase is uttered.

A third bias on display throughout the video is called Hyperbolic Discounting, which is the tendency to place higher value on what are perceived as more immediate payouts than on later payouts (which are often of a higher intrinsic value). In fact, the wholesale discounting of even the possibility of reducing the number of firearms to produce a less violent future in favor of the possible earlier payout of defending oneself with a firearm might explain a significant portion of gun-advocates' tenacious position.

Of course I've put forth a case that biases are grossly affecting the pro-gun side; I'll leave it up to the other side to make the counter case. There are doubtless things that have been said and positions put forth by my side that are also bias-affected, but my contention is that there are far fewer of them, and that the facts are objectively preponderant here.

The above biases clearly affect public opinion on the subject; however, the question still remains as to the effect of carrying a firearm (and, conversely, not carrying) on one's social posture and responses. I must here agree with a good friend of mine who commented on a social media post about guns, as follows:

“As a retired Police Officer I don't even have one. Firearms make someone ten feet tall, stupid and bulletproof.”

I'll add to the opening of this discussion by citing another well known cognitive bias, Overconfidence. One article in Psychology Today claims it is “the mother of all psychological biases.” People are prone to all kinds of claims that are on their face ridiculous; for example, over 90% of drivers in the U.S. claim they are better than the median. Bowlers will tell you that “they never bowl below their average.” 65% of Americans consider themselves as above average intelligence. Overconfidence is where a person overestimates their own abilities in relation to abilities in other people. Overconfidence is compounded by egocentrism, where one places greater significance on one's own abilities than on those of others. This can be clearly seen in the attitudes of those possessing guns, who harbor fantastic notions of how they would perform with their weapons in a given situation. This is true even of some of the least well-trained and least-practiced gun owners, all of whom boast proudly about how they would certainly “take down a bad guy.” One look at a rally or gun-rights event makes it clear that the majority of those advocating supposedly on behalf of their prowess as society's defenders are deluding themselves to a tremendous degree. They do not train with their weapons even as much as the most mediocre small-town police officer, most are in poor physical shape, and they adopt comical postures of machismo, bravado, and false-confidence. Much like the video discussed above, they are living paradigms of cognitive biases. As a friend of mine (one with vast military and law enforcement experience) bluntly put it when we were looking at an image of protesters armed with all kinds of modern tactical gear: “If those guys were actually in a military unit, there's no way they'd be issued that gear. They'd be given a typewriter and a roll of toilet paper and told to go sit their asses down.” 

Fear may be another important motivating factor both in the possession of guns and in the behavior of those carrying them. Surveys reveal that the most common justification for handgun ownership is self-protection, which is of course driven by the owners' perception of risk. The largest group of those owning guns, however, is that of white men, in rural communities, making more than $100,000.00 a year; hardly the highest risk group for violence. People are notoriously inept at accurately estimating risk, in large part due to cognitive biases; admittedly evolution gave us a tendency to overestimate risk that has so far served us well, but that doesn't mean we can't improve ourselves. So, as I sit here reading the last two sentences I can hear objections in the minds of many readers, who are either not white men or who make less than $100,000; the reason to call out such statistics is not to show that upper-middle class white men are the only ones laboring under a misguided understanding, but to point out the fact that risk is being miscalculated by the majority of gun owners. For a startling estimation of how poor we are as individuals and as a society at gauging risk, consider that after the events of September 11, 2001, many people opted to forego flying and instead drive because they were scared of flying and of thereby falling victim to terrorism. Several studies have been done, and there are suggestions that since the injury and fatality rate are so much higher for automobiles than for planes, a significant number of completely unnecessary deaths occurred solely because of the misperception of the risk of flying.

The fear of victimization certainly drives much of the gun ownership; however, I feel an equally powerful force driving it is what another friend of mine and I have discussed as “fetishization” of gun ownership. As an example, my friend, who visits a number of European countries for work, has taken pictures of entertainment magazine racks there as well as here; representative images are below. The first is a typical rack of magazines from the Czech Republic, the second is from here in the United States:

As is obvious, here in the U.S. there are almost a ridiculous number of magazines devoted to fanatical promotion and ownership of guns, specifically tactical or military style weapons, whereas in most places overseas there is virtually nothing of the like. The fancy and glossy depictions of slick, modern, dangerous looking firearms is nothing if not a bizarre form of erotica for those obsessed with guns, and with an overdeveloped sense of confidence in their ability to wield them. We feel this is a symptom of a deeper crisis, which is an excess of machismo in the form of toxic masculinity. While this may be a hot button issue that ignites passions on every side, it is indisputable that our society is rife with signals that everything hyper-masculine is sexy and indicative of success. Marketing campaigns for everything from deodorant to muscle cars are intended to make those of us who are less masculine feel inadequate. The sports that are popular (American-style Football, Boxing, Wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts fights) as well as the heroes we hold up are cut from the same cloth. We watch movies that glorify masculinity and violence (John Wick and Rambo come to mind). These signals would be ineffective without a willing consumer base, and of course we strive to emulate our heroes – that's why they're heroes, after all. So another layer of complication on guns is the obsession with tough-guy culture, or with the need to “be a hero,” or at least to make oneself feel like one would (or could) be a hero in any circumstance. The thing about real-life heroes is, they don't walk around with a constant self-awareness of their own hero-ness, and they certainly don't take pains to artificially cultivate that within themselves. They just exist as the people they are, trying instead to be always decent, watchful, and considerate, and they act heroic in the moment simply because that's who they are, not because it's who they're trying to be. On reflection, maybe it's not so much a flaw in the types of heroes we hold up, but rather the flaw is in the way we clumsily strive to emulate those heroes. That emulation should be a natural extension of the way our environment and our society shapes us. We should strive to build a society that nurtures the hero in everyone.

Now, we shift gears again and return to the question of the actual Second Amendment and its applicability to individuals keeping arms. If one doesn't merely cherry-pick the second clause but also includes the first clause, which is quite obviously intended to set parameters around the meaning of the second, then it is clear that the Amendment is related to the founders' worry about a federal army taking control of the states, a concern of the Anti-Federalists. Note here that it refers to a well-regulated militia as a deterrent to federal armies taking control of states, not to flabby weekend-warriors opposing the government in any loose sense. It could be construed (should in fact be construed, in my opinion) as protecting the right of citizens to bear arms only in service to a well-regulated state militia. There's at least some room for debate here; but again, the right allegedly conferred to all citizens to bear arms is not absolute nor is it necessarily unbounded, just as the right to freedom of speech is not unbounded.

I found the statutes that govern militias in my home state, North Carolina, and discovered some facts of which I'm sure many pro-gun-pro-militia types are unaware. I believe that many or most states have similar statutes.

The governor of the state is the Commander-in-Chief of all militias. He serves in this capacity and has the sole authority to call up and direct the actions of the militias. The militias in NC are comprised of two major categories: Organized and Unorganized militia. The Organized militia is subdivided into the NC National Guard, the Naval Militia, the State Defense Militia, and the Historic Military Commands. The unorganized militia consists of all other able bodied citizens over the age of 17 that haven't been dishonorably discharged or convicted of a felony.

Unless one is in the National Guard or the Naval Militia, then one is not an active-duty militia member, unless called upon by the Governor. The function of the State Defense Militia seems to be limited to securing National Guard and other bases when those forces are in deployment. The governor, of course, can call them to perform any duty he sees fit, but this is what is proscribed in the statutes. The unorganized militia serves to replenish the State Defense Militia in the event it is called on for active duty, subject of course to the direction of the commander in chief. The governor also has the power and duty to arm the militia, and is therefore given the authority to purchase and distribute arms. Nowhere in these statutes do I see any mention of private citizens publicly bearing privately-owned weapons when not on active duty as directed by the governor. Perhaps they could after being drafted into a militia (which is also within the powers of the governor); I wonder what the weekend warriors would think if they received a draft notification from the governor, especially from a governor who does not share their political beliefs.

All this is to say that it is obvious the states have interpreted the 2nd Amendment as granting them the right to the indicated “well-organized militias.” As far as I know such interpretation has never been challenged in a federal court.

I am sure there are any number of folks reading this who have grown increasingly angry or alarmed, or who have started thinking of counter arguments. I'd like to close with a few thoughts on the practicality of what I think my discussion entails. The first thing I think it means is that we have an obvious gun obsession, which I feel is a symptom of an obsession with all things “tough” and “macho.” These obsessions drive and are served by cognitive biases; they are also served by those with vested interests in the business of weapons manufacture and related industries; the result is a glut of dangerous weapons in the hands of under-trained and under-prepared individuals. Many of these individuals also see themselves as playing a role of hero or defender, another misguided self-image which is promoted, and likely even exploited, in popular culture. All of this is exacerbated by gross exploitation of our instinctual desire to find the easiest way, which in this case means arming oneself with a weapon instead of taking the more difficult path of continually training and preparing oneself.

I would ask any reader to please note that nowhere in this utterance have I proposed any particular action with regard to gun laws; this was intentional, although to be honest it does not fully reflect what I think is a reasonable debate to be had on sensible legal reforms that should occur right now. What I would like to see is for our culture to become sufficiently self-aware aware enough so that it can affect change in a direction towards greater sympathetic empathy, less toxic masculinity, an ability to look sensibly and soberly at hard statistics and facts, along with a wider knowledge of our own biases and other cognitive pitfalls that cause us to make bad decisions. This can only come about through improved education coupled with greater interaction between dissimilar people, in spaces where one is both free to speak one's mind and obligated to let the other side's position be heard. When we understand one another more fully we will be less inclined to fear each other, and less likely to feel a need to possess weapons with which to kill one another. At that point we may begin to talk about further legal restrictions.