Inconceivable: civil gun control debate. Does gibberish trump reality?

Andre the Giant Posse decal
“I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Fezzik, in The Princess Bride

In response to my recent post, President Obama expresses optimism: now in super-sized gibberish, my friend, mentor, fellow Scrogue (and Executive Editor at Scholars & Rogues), and all around swell guy, Sam Smith, had this to say:

Come on, Frank. Sometimes we simply misspeak. You’re going to let that, in a case where you know the man knows what he’s talking about (you think he came from Chicago’s south side without knowing a little about guns?) trump the reality of what we know about our society’s gun situation? I like my leaders to be articulate, too. I think I proved that from 2000-2008. And I don’t want government acting out of ignorance. But, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a difference between making a typo and not knowing how to spell potato.

I tried like hell to reply in brief, but I just could not do it. When someone of Sam’s intellect and formidable wordsmithery weaves such a wonderfully complex statement, one steps into that minefield either with great caution or a short lifespan. As I have yet to develop the talent of pithy caution, I find myself yielding to the temptation of yet another epic post (by modern blogging standards).

Sam, you are the master of brevity. So many points demanding a response in so few words! I do hope you’ll accept this rebuttal in the respectful spirit in which I offer it.

Did the president misspeak?
Do I know the man knows what he’s talking about?
Did President Obama learn about guns by osmosis?
Do we agree on what the reality of America’s gun situation is?
Am I going to let a misspeak trump said reality?

Sometimes we misspeak. Yes, we do. Maybe he did. The best evidence I can find is that in the past he has referenced “high capacity clips,” which may or may not indicate a solid understanding of their function since, after all, in the CBS interview he goes on to suggest, in the same breath, that magazines fire off rounds. If we had magazines like that, we wouldn’t need guns 😉

Obama to NBC’s David Gregory: I Support High Capacity Clip Bans

In any event, misspoken or otherwise, his emphasis is on the volume of ammunition discharged from some device or other. As I note at the end of my “gibberish” post, the difference between volume discharged using either 30-round or 10-round magazines is effectively negligible*. At best, a ban on 30-round magazines is just an arbitrary and capricious regulation that would, in part, satisfy left wing fear mongers, rile right wing fear mongers, and ultimately make no difference in public safety. At worst, such a ban is just an arbitrary and capricious political stunt that not only resolves nothing about public safety but also dangerously furthers the pretense that rights, misunderstood or otherwise, can be justly restricted or infringed on the basis of little more than vehement sentiment, all with the intent to shore up fellow Democrat reelection potential (yes, I’m a mind-reader…it’s a trick possessed by all the best cynics). If such restrictions could be accomplished in the public interest without qualifying as infringement, I have grave reservations that the president that presides over a pile of issues like signature drone strikes, secret kills lists, assassination of US citizens, abridgment of due process, indefinite detention, and a system of justice that recognizes two different standards of law depending on one’s wealth is the one to achieve that balance.

* I’m still waiting for a couple grand in funding for my proposed live-fire test.  The rifle I can borrow, but none of my “gun nut” friends actually happen to have a sufficient number of magazines or the needed web gear or other accessories necessary to safely replicate the act of a psycho shooting hundreds of rounds in a few minutes.  Go figure.  They also won’t just give me nearly $1,000 worth of ammo.  Cheap bastards.

One thing both parties have in common: wimping out on tough votes

I have my doubts that any real and meaningful gun control legislation will actually make it to his desk, but this kind of sloppy fear-mongering speech is perfectly suited to a Dem GOTV effort when the time comes. As such, I honestly doubt that he cares whether or not he meant “high clip clip,” “high magazine magazine,” or “high-capacity clip/magazine.” The effect is the same. As a friend rephrased his “misspeak,”

I think it’s an issue of bamboozlery by jargon-fu: “More goodness! Less badness! Ban the Wand of Random Slayings, for it is witchery!”

I know the man knows what he’s talking about. I know no such thing. He’s never served in the military or on a police force, and is alleged to “do skeet shooting all the time.” Never mind that skeet shooting is a shotgun sport and has zero relevance to an understanding of semi-automatic rifles and/or the magazines used with them.

The White House’s curious silence about Obama’s claim of skeet shooting

Did President Obama learn about guns by osmosis? With no evidence of which I am aware that he has a history of owning or using firearms in any capacity, how would he know a little about guns by virtue of coming from Chicago’s South Side? Since I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have exactly zero racist bones in your body, I know you’re not suggesting that our black president picked it up by virtue of his presence in an area with a 93% African American population.  Maybe he learned it from the criminal element in Roseland during his community organizer days?  Or maybe he favored more well-to-do haunts in South Side and learned about guns, especially semi-automatic rifles, from those who would advocate for their use in self-defense, given the lay of the land? I think we can agree all of those propositions are preposterous. I know that in my case, it took training to effectively take down, clean, maintain, and operate an M-16, an M-60, an M-203, and 81mm and 60mm mortars, as well as countless hours memorizing details from my Blue Book. The maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters, Drill Sergeant! Nothing about being in their proximity conveyed diddly squat to my knowledge. Maybe he’s different.

Do we agree on what the reality of America’s gun situation is? You ask if I’m going to let “that” (your antecedent: “misspeak,” my antecedent: “his exact gibberish, as spoken”) trump some form of reality, particularly the “reality of what we know about our society’s gun situation.”

First, you’re good. Very, very good. Bring ‘em on board with “we” speech 🙂 It would be very easy to step on that mine. Unfortunately, I don’t know that I am part of that collective pronoun in this case (an unusual occurrence between us). Never mind the epistemological skepticism I bring to the table about knowledge and the known. Like Socrates, I know that I know nothing.  Like Rachel Maddow, I am fascinated when different parties look at the same body of information and derive entirely different conclusions.

Here’s some snapshots of the reality I see:

~45 million US households with guns (taking the low estimate)
~260 million guns

How many gun owners are there in the United States of America?

We don’t actually know how many gun owners there are.

Gun rhetoric vs. gun facts

For ease and convenience, let’s just say that’s 45 million owners, averaging 6 firearms per person (even though, in all reality, the number of owners is going to be higher, yielding a lower average number of guns owned per owner).

~1.5 million “assault weapons”

How many assault weapons are there in America?

For the sake of argument, let’s maximize the number of “assault weapons” (and skip what the hell that phrase even means, since I think it signifies nothing more than “looks scary”) owners by assuming each owner only owns one (that’s one ugly alliteration). That would be one “assault weapon” for every 30 owners of firearms (even though the reality is that some folks own more than one, the ratio stays the same). That would be 3.33% of firearm owners owning “assault weapons,” although that percentage would actually be lower if we accounted for owners owning more than one.

Number of firearm homicides in 2010: 11,078

CDC FastStats: Assault or homicide?

For the sake of laziness and lack of data, let’s just assume that to be typical of any given year, even though Gun rhetoric vs. gun facts  indicates otherwise. After all, 2010 firearm homicides were at the lowest rate they have been since at least 1981. Let’s maximize murderers by assuming one murder per murderer. Let’s even assume that every single one used an “assault weapon,” even though there’s nothing to suggest that is the case. We’ll completely ignore minor quibbles like type of homicide (first degree, 2nd, etc.), convictions, and the assumption that over time, some percentage, however small, would be overturned on appeal, or, counter to the gun control cause, were actually part of legitimate self-defense.

Murderers as a percentage of firearm owners: 0.02% (or 2 out of every 10,000)
Murderers as a percentage of “assault weapon” owners: 0.74% (about 7.5 per 1,000)

Now, since mass shootings are the particular type of murder that triggered this latest round of gun control frenzy, let’s take a look at some relevant numbers (read: not from the dishonest Brady Campaign, which inflates the number of school shootings, rather casting their track record for fact-based advocacy into doubt).

Number of mass murders since 1982: at least 61

A guide to mass shootings in America

If the percentages were paltry in the first examples, prepare your mind for some extra zeroes.

For the sake of maximizing the fear factor here, let’s assume each of 61 mass murders had two shooters. That would give us 122 mass murderers. Never mind that MoJo indicates that only 2 mass shootings involved 2 shooters. We’re going for fear here. Correct down if you like extra zeros.

Percentage of gun owners that mass murder: 0.0003% (rounded up!), or, in other words, 3 per million.

No, let’s have those extra zeroes, after all.  63 shooters in mass shootings is 0.00014% (1.4 per million) of the low-end estimate of 45 million gun owners.  Okay, no extra zeroes, but there’s an extra significant digit to make the point.  If we go with the high estimate of 80 million gun owners, we get that extra zero: 0.00007875% (7.8 per 10 million).

If we go even further into scary territory and assume that in every one of these cases a scary looking an “assault weapon” was used by the mass murderers (actually, only 35 according to MoJo), we’re talking about a much *ahem* bigger percentage…0.008% (or 8 per 100,000).

That’s as bad as I can make the numbers look. My apologies to those with parenting, or at very least, more sympathetic sensitivities that I lack, but when it comes to governance, I’m more concerned with populations over time (however sloppily) than I am with specific children of specific individuals. The degree of tragedy involved is not diminished one iota, but I feel that the policy ramifications are entirely different once we get away from the emotional appeal baggage implicit in the catch phrase, “what about the children?”  Seriously, doctors are more dangerous by the numbers (logical fallacy and apples to oranges, free of charge).  Actually seriously, if the goal is to protect the lives of children and the quality of those lives, there are probably more efficient and effective means of effecting that change than by way of gun control legislation founded in specious reasoning, just as pro-lifers would actually prevent more abortions by supporting reproductive rights.  Pity we won’t get the right wing on board with either of those proposals.  Why does the GOP hate children? I digress.  Or do I?

Another part of the reality I see is that, compared to a great many things that get compared to guns when it comes to control, gun rights have this perverse uniqueness: the inclusion of the word infringed (as in, “shall not be”) in an amendment to our constitution.  It is unlike driving a car.  Freedom of movement is guaranteed, but not the means of conveyance.  It is unlike voting, which, while it should not be infringed, started out that way and only progressively became less so.  It is unlike assembly, which doesn’t have that stipulation and gets infringed far too commonly.  It’s not like speech, for if it were, it would be regulated similarly, meaning that there would be no presumption of motive or guilt beforehand and damages would only be assessed when damage occurs.  If it’s like any other right, it’s like that of freedom of/from religion insofar as our federal government can’t seem to help overstepping its bounds, else we wouldn’t have tax laws respecting religious establishments.  If anything, by this stretch of my reasoning, the government would only be able to legislate to expand gun rights insofar as there’s no restriction on making laws respecting them, only on infringement.

Sadly, when I see the Second Amendment being discussed, I see all manner of gross oversimplification, misunderstanding, and assumption of understanding across the spectrum. I make no claims to fully understanding it, which, humility be damned, is perhaps the most honest thing I’ve seen in print about it.

There’s an historical context for the inclusion of this amendment that gets ignored.

The heritage of our right to bear arms

Let the ad hominem commence! Not from you, naturally, but surely someone who bothers to read this far will shout, “Stearns!? You’ve gotta be shittin’ me!” I’ve not yet read the sources cited in this document, much less checked my understanding of them against that of modern historians of differing persuasions, so I cannot vouch for the soundness of the reasoning. On the other hand, a) I don’t know anyone else who has, and b) I haven’t seen this historical account debunked.  To my perhaps ill-informed eyes, Stearns’ article makes a compelling case. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  If anyone can point me to a well-established source to the contrary, I would greatly appreciate it.

There’s that wee matter of awkward syntax in the amendment, of which it’s possible the Justices that decided District of Columbia v. Heller made a complete hash. For better and worse, that hash is now precedent.

There’s the militia clause hole in the amendment, big enough to drive an APC through, that, were the apparently typical (squeaky wheels, and all that) arms-bearing advocate to pay attention, would probably spook them if they looked too closely…that even if we buy their reasoning in bulk, there’s the little matter of them being held accountable to the states, meaning no right to act on their own as a “militia” without orders to do so by a chain of command established by the state. So much for justified insurrection without an order from the governor. Sorry, Ted.

There’s the recent bit of history making the rounds that the second amendment was only included in order to appease those worried that the feds were going to make keeping slaves really damned difficult by screwing with their slave patrols.

The Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery

Without having yet read Madison’s proceedings of the US Constitutional Convention, much less the ratification convention proceedings for all thirteen colonies, I am not yet well-informed enough to know whether or not the reasoning presented by Thom Hartmann is actually sound.

All of which is to say, complexity, complexity, complexity! And the reality I’m to see is that mass murders are sufficient reason to skip all the complexity and move to gun control because reality.

I don’t see that. I see that something awful happens, 61 times since ‘82 or 11,000 times per year, but that its done by percentages of the population that, in other contexts, I believe many would agree are negligible. 3 people out of every million did a thing! One “blanker” out of 12,500 “blankers” did a thing! Now let’s rush to monkey with the codification of our rights, however poorly understood it is by the masses, which necessitates that opposite ends of the punditry spectrum will engage in the rashest, ugliest emotional appeals to win the day via “politics by high school popularity contest” reasoning.

Something tells me that’s a somewhat different view of the same set of facts, and maybe even a different subset of the facts, than the one you are using. For the moment we appear to not share in a consensus reality.  To be fair, I’m sure I haven’t done justice to your position, but I look forward to you setting that record straight.

This many words in, the long and short of it is this, as far as I’m concerned. Either President Obama does not know what he’s saying, which would explain his lack of fluency in the terminology, in which case he’s a sorry advocate for any position on it, except for that bit about him occupying the biggest bully pulpit in the nation, or he does know and, even without misspeaking, is making the case for infringing on a right using tragedy as a platform in aid of advancing what, exactly? Oh, in part, a pointless limitation on magazine capacity that does nothing, ultimately, to address the number of rounds sent downrange unless, and that’s the key, unless the argument is then necessarily driven to include consideration of not only so-called “assault weapons” but any and all semi-automatic firearms. Otherwise capacity is really just a moot point.  Far more likely, in my estimation, is that he’s just wasting his political capital on go-nowhere legislation in order to score political points for his party and/or distract us from other issues, like maybe failure to see to the prosecution of bank fraud, or maybe CIA drone ops, or maybe something leading up to Syria or Iran, or maybe some presidential intuition that Dow at 14,000 is a bubble ripe for bursting hot on the heels of a retracting economy and lousy job numbers.

I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable enough with our constitution for, among other reasons, the ones I’ve seen summarized from Founding Finance by William Hogeland  (dammit fellow nameless Scrogue, write that shit up! 😉 ) that I don’t want to exacerbate the problem by tinkering with it on anything but the soundest of bases. Infringing on the “rights,” so-called or otherwise, of tens of millions of people because a relative handful of people are sick and/or evil will do nothing to resolve much bigger, more pervasive social issues than x number of dead children, however awful the immediate circumstances.

Am I going to let a misspeak trump reality? No, but that depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

Afterword: One point I failed to address in our apparently different views of reality was my usual “because tyranny” position, as I thought it lacked relevance in the flow of my argument. Even so, I still think this bears pointing out. Time and again I see the response to “gun nuts,” when the “because tyranny” case is raised by the “usual” arms-bearing advocate, take the form of, “lol, you idiot, like you could stop the US military.” I find such a view tremendously short-sighted. When I speak of resisting tyranny, I don’t mean as presented by any form of our government as it’s currently recognized by anyone, least of all a tyranny at the hands of King Seekrit Mooslim Kenyan Hussain Obama (as our more benighted citizens would have it). However, if history is any guide (see: Why Nations Fail, below), nations do occasionally fail for a host of complex reasons, thus the probability that our own may fail one day is greater than 0%. Should that happen, and likely enough *knock on wood* not in our lifetimes, something will fill the void. That something may well be tyrannical in form. If so, what passes for the left at that time will probably wish it had retained the most generous interpretation of the right to keep and bear arms, especially if that new, non-US tyranny should take shape from religious extremists or corporatists champing at the bit to turn their most Dickensian fantasies into reality.

Note: Thanks to wufnik for the recommended reading, Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson. By all means, read wufnik’s review  and follow-up, then read the book, consider criticisms of the work, and proceed cautiously.  I’ve read it and cannot recommend it highly enough, errors and all, although I could never do it the justice wufnik rendered.


Image credit: Photo of Andre the Giant Posse decal by John W. Schulze, licensed under Creative Commons.