The President’s Gun Control Proposal

This morning I listened to the president’s press conference on his gun control proposals. By and large I found his proposals inoffensive, commonsensical, and, unfortunately, unlikely to have much effect even if enacted in toto. The highlights of his proposal, at least to my ear, were:

  • Ban on assault weapons
  • 10 round limit on magazines
  • End the “gun show exception” and require background checks of anyone purchasing a firearm

I’m sure that many individuals, much more radicalized with respect to gun ownership than I am, will see those as intolerable assaults on basic freedoms.

As I’ve written before homicides using firearms can be divided into two broad classifications: the actions of “pseudocommando” spree killers like the murderer who killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, and the sad, too ordinary murder of family members, coworkers, or members of competing gangs that goes in day-in, day-out. I care as much about the 20 young people who will be shot this weekend in Chicago, mostly poor, young black men, as I do about the 20 schoolchildren from prosperous families who were murdered at Sandy Hook School. Reducing or preventing those two different kinds of homicides using firearms require different strategies.

That brings me to the one thing the president said with which I disagreed:

Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.

The emphasis is mine. As a rhetorical flourish that’s fine. As the foundation of policy, I couldn’t disagree more.

If we were to forcibly institutionalize the mentally ill, those who had suicidal ideation, or who had thought about killing other people, it would almost certainly save more than one life. It would also be cruel, offensive to freedom, horrifically expensive, and probably counter-productive since it would discourage people who needed help from seeking it. Do we have an obligation to try to impose such a regime? I don’t think so.

One of the basic principles of optimization is to divide a process into its components, identify the requirements and costs of the parts, and develop ways of doing them more effectively and cheaper. It’s easiest to optimize where there’s something to optimize. You can’t get a dollar’s worth of cost reduction by optimizing the production of a $.25 part.

If you divide gun homicides into its components, about half of all gun homicides are committed by young, black men in cities. The victims, too, are mostly young, black men in cities. I recognize that some people find pointing that out reprehensible. To me it’s basic optimization. The one thing we should do to reduce the homicide rate is end gang violence.

In his talk the president referred obliquely to that when he spoke about putting more police officers on the streets. Unfortunately, there is no obvious inverse relationship between the number of police officers on the streets and the number of gun homicides. Chicago has the largest number of police officers per 100,000 population of any country in the nation. We also lead the nation among big cities in gun homicides. We need to think harder about this problem. Then we need to act.

48 comments… add one

  • steve

    Decriminalize drugs if you want gun killings to go down. We also need to consider the issue of personal responsibility. I am a long time, off and on, NRA member. They talk about it all of the time, how most gun owners are responsible. Was the Newtown mom really responsible keeping guns around when her son was having problems? I dont think so. When my brother in law was suicidal I got the guns out of our house. Yes, I have the constitutional right to bear arms. I had the responsibility to not do so. I think we should certainly consider the possibility of penalties against those who do not act responsibly by not locking up guns or even removing them when appropriate.

    I also think you need to consider suicides. The same as above should apply.

    Steve

  • Decriminalize drugs if you want gun killings to go down.

    Frankly, I doubt it. All that would do is reduce the revenue that could be derived from the activity. Gun violence might go up. Or the gangs would transfer their attention to other more lucrative areas, e.g. weapons trafficking, human trafficking, extortion.

  • I don’t think weapons trafficking would ever be of the same magnitude as drugs. Human trafficking is alot harder than transporting drugs. Extortion? Again, not nearly as big. Granted, gangs would switch over t other activities, but why must we assume gangs will remain the same size. Decriminalizing drugs might shrink gang size, and thus achiever your objective at least in part.

    I get the impression you have an aversion to decriminalizing drugs.

  • Icepick

    I found his proposals inoffensive, commonsensical, and, unfortunately, unlikely to have much effect even if enacted in toto.

    If they’re likely to be ineffective, how can they possibly be commonsensical? What good a bunch of laws that aren’t going to have an effect?

    Not to mention that it would mean either shifting the focus of existing government resources from some other activity to gun control* or adding new governmental apparatus to deal with the problem. Given the gigantic budget crunch, that alone makes the proposals nonsensical. And the way these things work means that it would almost certainly be more governmental apparatus, more oversight of citizens (which is noxious and should be avoided without good cause), and undoubted mission creep by the apparatus later, as it attempts to protect and grow itself.

    In short, if policy action is useless but has any real cost at all (monetary or otherwise), it is nonsensical.

    Not to mention that if this is enacted by Presidential fiat, then it is just one more example of the President shitting on the Constitution. I know how much Democrats hate that damned thing, but it still has some bare utility as a restraint on would-be God Emperors.

    *Even if you think the resources are being shifted from something useless, it’s still nonsensical, as that would simply amount to an decent budget-cutting opportunity lost.

  • Icepick

    Steve V, the point is that bunch of hardened criminals aren’t going straight because Big Pharma takes over distributing goof balls and crank and crack at the local Walgreens or CVS. They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing, and if the children in those neighborhoods don’t get other economic and social opportunities they’re going to fall into the lifestyle too, over time. It’ll just mean they have to downgrade from serious weapons that fire lots of rounds in bursts to still serious weapons that don’t fire them quite as fast. Back to Saturday Night Special revolvers for that lot, and shot guns. Less of the fun stuff as seen on Sons of Guns for them.

    Gangs don’t attract recruits because of the money in drugs. Gangs attract recruits because there isn’t much opportunity in gangland neighborhoods. If it was just the money you’d see more Harvard grads foregoing Wall Street for the ‘hood, and certainly more people that weren’t good enough for Harvard or the other Ivy Leagues. Not many UCF grads in the gangland drug business, either, and that’s a lot of grads over time.

  • michael reynolds

    1) I see no rational objection to pointing out that a major percentage of gun violence is black-on-black and gang related. It’s almost never a good idea to suppress data.

    2) I also agree that we can’t do whatever it takes to save one life. If we raised the driving age to 30 it would save lives, but would it make sense, would it be worth it? Yes, we have to “put a price” on human life.

    3) I like the recommendations. Some lives will likely be saved and the price is minimal. The gun show background check exemption never made any sense. Do we have a private sale car registration exemption? No.

    4) I’ve never been convinced by your opposition to legalization of drugs, Dave. Gangs are about profit and mutual protection. Reduce the profit and you reduce the lure and power of gangs. We’ve legalized booze and gambling. If we legalize drugs that really only leaves extortion and prostitution as major theaters for organized crime. No one’s saying we’ll be back to the Garden of Eden, but legalization will break the gangs.

    5) Steve’s right that we need legal mechanisms to hold individuals responsible for their guns. I can be held responsible if my dog drops a poo on a sidewalk and someone trips, but I’m blameless if I leave a gun in reach of a child or mental patient?

  • michael reynolds

    I don’t think gang membership rests solely on a lack of alternative jobs. A street level dealer makes less than he would flipping burgers. (There was a study to this effect, can’t find it. But take a look at the street dealer’s lifestyle.) People join gangs because they’re afraid of other gangs, or lack parents and sibling support, or for excitement, or camaraderie, for a sense of importance, all the panoply of human weirdness. Young males aren’t rational.

  • michael reynolds

    A paragraph got dropped somehow on that last. Don’t want to retype it, but basically the gang structure relies on profit. That’s different from why some dumb-ass kid would join. I had a fair amount of legal trouble when I was young and stupid. It wasn’t because I couldn’t get a job. It was because testosterone and youthful fearlessness are a dangerous brew.

  • jan

    Here’s an abbreviated summary of Obama’s EO’s signed today.

    It was even more succinctly laid out, though, in one of the comments penned below the piece:

    Billabong says on: January 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm
    To summarize your summary:

    1. There’s not much we can do outside of the safeguards we already have in place.

    2. Find ways to grow government corruption.

    3. I am President, and aren’t I great?!

    One of the more erroneous comments made by Obama was referencing the “900 gun deaths” occurring between the Sandy Hook shooting and today. Omitted was the relevant detail, breaking that number down to 700 of those deaths being from suicides. Also, I personally believe that Obama would have seemed more sincere in his quest to lower gun deaths if he had first engaged Congress in a bi-partisan approach in pursuing the tightening up of safeguards. Background checks and ratcheting up penalties for illegal gun carrying or use in a crime are areas that have far less disagreement among people. Instead, Obama chose to politically bandstand, having a backdrop of children behind him, before he grandiosely swept over to sign everything he could into law by EO’s.

    Now, his base and media acolytes may enthuse over him, interpreting this as strength of conviction and confidence. However, there is a great many others who see this as overreaching hubris, arrogance, and a failure to coalesce political allies around common ground goals.

  • I think Michael has some points.

    Young men aren’t rational. You’ve given some indications that you weren’t an angel yourself, Dave. Not that you did others wrong, but that you had energies that needed discipline.

  • Andy

    -Ban on assault weapons
    -10 round limit on magazines
    -End the “gun show exception” and require background checks of anyone purchasing a firearm

    I agree with Ice about effectiveness.

    – A ban on assault weapons is meaningless without knowing what would actually be banned – in other words, the details matter. How would “assault weapons” be legally defined? As we saw with the 1994 ban and California’s current “ban,” that’s not so easy.

    – I don’t have any issues limiting magazine sizes, I would just point out that it’s not likely to have any measurable effect on gun violence.

    – The “gun show exception” is a misnomer created by the anti-gun lobby. There are two ways to buy a gun – you can buy one through a federal firearms license holder, or you can buy one from a private individual. I’m not sure how it’s possible to enforce background checks for private sales of guns or most anything else.

    Michael,

    I can be held responsible if my dog drops a poo on a sidewalk and someone trips, but I’m blameless if I leave a gun in reach of a child or mental patient?

    No you’re not blameless. As far as I’m aware, there is no except to criminal and civil negligence when it comes to guns.

  • We had a horrible incident here several years ago when a 15-16 year old boy killed both his parents and a best friend with a long gun.

    I’m not tied closely enough to the “gossip line” to know what the causes were. Middle class white family.

  • Just a week or two ago a nice black family man was killed with a handgun during a robbery as he closed the shop. Young blacks stealing. That’s in a community of 23,000.

  • Or the potential headline: “Gore widow shoots heir.”

  • I’d have just kneecapped him.

  • Guns are too available.

  • What’s the old line? “Live by the gun, die by the gun.”

  • PD Shaw

    Sorry, I think the ban on assault weapons is stupid, and I don’t even own a gun. And the reason its stupid is probably the reason its unconstitutional. Imagine a bunch of right-to-lifers huddled in a room, thinking about all the arbitrary restrictions they can place on abortion under the theory that if this inconvenience or burden can save one life it will be worth it.

    I’m not particularly a fan of Heller, but if you start from the proposition that there is a fundamental right to an abortion or a gun, its not sufficient to suggest purely theoretic benefits from restrictions on guns or abortion. Cosmetic features on weapons are not going to pass IMHO. Some of the traditional features of assaults weapons might even be safer, like a detachable magazine. Sorry to Constitutionalize the debate and use the word stupid.

    Magazine size limitations do have some proximate impact on the ability to kill mass numbers of people. I wouldn’t support it or oppose it, nor think the courts would care. If I were a politician I would trade magazine size limitations for something I cared about.

    I’ll disagree with Andy on the gunshow loophole. Commercial sales are commercial sales. If I buy a car from a private person, I still need to report the transaction to the government. I don’t see any reason to exempt private sales from basic registration requirements. Yes, it won’t stop all sales, but this does appear to be a situation where government policy is subsidizing sales through non-licensed sellers.

  • jan

    No you’re not blameless. As far as I’m aware, there is no except to criminal and civil negligence when it comes to guns.

    ……especially here in CA.

    While I’ve never had any personal experience with the NRA, I’ve heard that they are big on gun safety and proper weapon training. The left tends to describe this organization as some kind of out-of-control, slip-shod group…when, from what I’ve heard, it is just the opposite. Most people who belong to this group are experienced handlers of guns, respect them and are careful in how they are stored and used.

    It is the unskilled, uneducated gun people, who obtain a gun illegally, or on a whim, hide them in vulnerable places, or, like the mother in CT. are guilty of not thinking about the appropriateness of weapons, with regards to the age and mental health of those living with them, who present the real and open danger to the public.

    When my dad died I inherited his old army revolver. Ironically, it was the only thing I was given that was his. It provoked one special memory of a family camping trip. We used to camp in a small travel trailer. One night we pulled off at dusk onto some sandy flats — nowhere land. All four of us were in the trailer when we could see an old car barreling along the dirt road towards us, kicking up dust in the fading light. My dad reached over the dinette table to a cupboard, pulling out his service revolver. He told us to stay inside while he went outside, with the gun behind his back, to greet the car’s occupants. 3 young men piled out of the car and walked towards him. I could hear him say something like, “If you know what’s good for you, get back in your car and leave.” My dad always had a calm, no bs manner about him. They physically stopped and then backed up, saying something like “ok, ok…” and left as fast as they had arrived. My dad came back, visibly shaken, told us to get in the car, and we pulled out too for a more public place to spend the night. That incident has always remained with me, as I wonder what would have happened if my dad hadn’t had that gun.

    In the meantime, that revolver remained in a drawer, no clip, until our son was born, at which time it was stored off premises. It’s been so long, that I can’t even remember where I put it!

  • steve

    “breaking that number down to 700 of those deaths being from suicides.”

    Why are suicides exempt?

    Steve

  • All I can say is that the two guns in my front guest bedroom were appalling, and I really should have called the police to witness.

  • A card for machine guns, SAW, Inc.

    I collect business cards and threw that one away, I was so shocked.

  • As I recall, he said he was “investing in guns.”

    Not in my house.

  • I’m botany, bugs, barnacles, and birds.

    And good boys.

  • jan

    Why are suicides exempt?

    I didn’t say suicides are exempt. However, the way Obama folded the 900 number into his speech, it was as if they were all homicides, or resulting from the weapons he was addressing in his EO — assault weapons or those having larger magazine sizes. With suicides, it’s one bullet.

  • Andy

    PD,

    Except there are restrictions on abortion even though it’s considered by many to be fundamental right. And, actually, the right-to-lifers do try to do what you describe and sometimes they are successful. And if the government can regulate automatic weapons, then it seems that it could regulate other firearms. The issue I see with “assault weapons” bans is that there isn’t a clear line differentiating those guns from other types like there is with automatic weapons.

    As for the “gunshow loophole,” if you’re talking about registration, then that’s a different ball of wax from background checks. If people were required to register weapons similarly to cars, including titles and official ownership transfers, then presumably government would handle the background check part of the transaction. Background checks by themselves? Who is going to bother? But even registration has an enforcement problem – guns are not like cars and are easier to hide. Not that it couldn’t be mostly accomplished over the long term.

    steve,

    Why are suicides exempt?

    Probably shouldn’t be exempted, but should come with a big asterisk.

  • The machine gun was on the Sheraton reproduction bed and the pistol was in an open cardboard box on the floor. Bullets were scattered on the bed and on the floor.

  • i should have called the police.

  • Pretty staggering, isn’t it?

  • What do you think that means?

  • I have no idea. He’s gone now. He’s under his biological mother’s aegis.
    She and his father were married for 18 years.

    Same as we were.

  • I sent her a couple of inquiries about the condo a day or two ago.

  • Good luck, pretty girl!

  • Look, I like their mother.

  • We’re talking a cross-cultural moral issue.

    And it could be a simple loss of the idea of “what’s next?”

    Michael found Katherine.

  • I found Mr. Dave. I’m a damned good hunter.

    They don’t have anything to hunt for.

  • As a mentor, sir.

  • michael reynolds

    The NRA is full of shit on gun safety. First, gun training accomplishes nothing. When I fired a Colt 45 in a room with three people I cared about I had long-since completed the NRA gun safety course, was experienced in firing guns, was not a criminal and was not mentally ill.

    Every single person who drives a car has taken drivers ed (well, at least here in CA) and most are quite experienced, and yet they run into each other. The other day some genius plowed a BMW into a power pole while getting off the 101. I happened to see the very Hollywood fire that resulted when the pole collapsed and ignited the gas. The guy who did this survived and tested negative for booze or drugs. He just misjudged. He just screwed up.

    The idea that guns can ever be safe is absurd. A few pounds of pressure on a trigger and someone can die. No different really than driving a car in that regard, except that we need cars and we work endlessly to improve the safety of cars and minimize the risks they pose. My car has a padded dashboard, strengthened seats, headrests, crumple zone, safety cage, ABS and stability control, shoulder belts and a dozen airbags. What have we done to improve the safety of these unnecessary guns? Nothing. Why? Because the NRA which prattles on about “gun safety” refuses even to endorse trigger locks.

  • All I can say Michael, is that my account shows a mess.

    Those impulses didn’t come from us.

  • Not gathering a machine gun, but I will keep the 10′” chef knife.

  • And I still remember the story about the guy who shot his wife “inadvertently.”

    “She was napping on the sofa, and I was cleaning my rifle, and it just went off.”

    Just like that!

  • In answer to the questions about assault weapons, there is no definition. There’s just a denotation—they make a list.

    My views on the bulleted items above is based on cost-benefit. I don’t think they infringe on basic rights and I suspect that the benefit will outweigh the costs. That’s why I drew attention to the president’s “if one life is saved” point. As rhetoric—no problem. It’s a lousy operating principle.

  • PD Shaw

    They can’t simply list weapons, since a gun be repackaged under a different name. I assume that a ban would be similar to the old federal ban and identify features that have nothing to do with regulating gun harms, but look scary. I agree with Mark Thompson at the League, that such an approach poisons the well. A reasonable conclusion is that gun-grabbers are simply making an arbitrary list that they plan on continuing to grow.

  • We’re returning inevitably to a theme I’ve sounded here before—different views of what law should be. Historically, American law proceeds in fits and starts. Not in continuing approximation. There’s one, big over-arching law, e.g. the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then there’s a period during which things shake out. There may be some modifications but it’s not continuously fine-tuned.

  • PD Shaw

    andy, numerous abortion regulations have been thrown out, from special taxes, spousal notification to mandatory ultrasounds. Essentially, the government now has the burden of proving it is pursuing a legitimate government purpose with its regulation other than attempting to reduce guns/abortions, and that there are no less restrictive alternatives available. That doesn’t mean guns aren’t subject to regulation, the government just has to be smarter about it than pre-Heller.

    You’re right that I conflated registration and background checks, partly because having the government perform the background checks appears to be the easiest way to avoid the cost and inconvenience for small sales. There may be better alternatives, but the notion that I might be too dangerous to buy a gun from Wal*Mart, but not a gun show at the Ramada Inn, is just bizarre; it needs to be both or neither.

  • Steve V, the point is that bunch of hardened criminals aren’t going straight because Big Pharma takes over distributing goof balls and crank and crack at the local Walgreens or CVS. They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing, and if the children in those neighborhoods don’t get other economic and social opportunities they’re going to fall into the lifestyle too, over time.

    If the market is shrinking there wont be as many opportunities. Money is absolutely a factor in gangs. Go and try to take their money and you’ll likely have an unpleasant fate.

    Yes, they’ll switch to other illegal activities, but what you are arguing is that gang size/participation is immutable to anything but giving kids education/jobs prior to joining a gang. Is there any evidence for this?

    It’ll just mean they have to downgrade from serious weapons that fire lots of rounds in bursts to still serious weapons that don’t fire them quite as fast. Back to Saturday Night Special revolvers for that lot, and shot guns. Less of the fun stuff as seen on Sons of Guns for them.

    I don’t think the argument that gangs are as well armed as the military has much basis in reality. I think it is an argument that police departments and various government officials use to:

    1. Get bigger budgets.
    2. Get more stuff.
    3. Get more power.

    Gangs don’t attract recruits because of the money in drugs.

    It is most definitely a factor.

    Gangs attract recruits because there isn’t much opportunity in gangland neighborhoods.

    Which is, ultimately, a money argument.

    If it was just the money you’d see more Harvard grads foregoing Wall Street for the ‘hood, and certainly more people that weren’t good enough for Harvard or the other Ivy Leagues.

    It is a risk vs. reward issue. Harvard grads have much better reward options for much lower risk.

    Not many UCF grads in the gangland drug business, either, and that’s a lot of grads over time.

    Same thing, risk vs. reward.

    The idea of “opportunities” is really a money argument. It is an argument that basically says, “You’ll have more money early on, and even more later on.” That is what the “opportunities” argument is, at its core. I didn’t go to school and study hard shit so I could have a crap job. I wanted a decent job that paid good money to start and would allow me to have even more later on. One approach is to improve the opportunities in the communities where drug dealing is rampant.

    Another would be more top down though. The big money is at the top. Take away the big money and the guys at the top are going to do what? Turn to what? Gun running? I’d suggest that gun smuggling isn’t going to be as lucrative since they’ll be harder to move. You can break 10 pounds of cocaine down into smaller sizes for transport. Can’t do the same with a gun to the same extent. Sure you can take it apart, but that is it. And if you transport the parts separately and one of the shipments gets caught…well all the others are now worthless. Extortion? Okay, sure they could switch to that, but with drugs you have two willing parties, the buyer and the seller. With extortion you don’t, the criminal footprint is going to be larger and thus harder to engage in on a large scale. Human trafficking? Okay, but humans have the problem I noted with guns, but even more so.

    So you say, “Well why not all 3.” Are you telling me that gangs right now are leaving money on the table by not doing all 3 plus selling drugs? Why not do all 4 right now, and make even more money. Here is what MS-13 does according to the FBI:

    MS-13 members engage in a wide range of criminal activity, including drug distribution, murder, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, immigration offenses, kidnapping, carjackings/auto thefts, and vandalism. Most of these crimes, you’ll notice, have one thing in common—they are exceedingly violent. And while most of the violence is directed toward other MS-13 members or rival street gangs, innocent citizens often get caught in the crossfire.

    Drugs are unique amongst crimes in that drug transactions are closer to other legal transactions. When you go buy something legally there are two willing participants: the buyer and the seller. For most other crimes this does not hold.

    I bet the drug trade is where many gangs most of their money. Legalization will put a big dampener on that. Will it eliminate it, no. Will gangs adapt and evolve, yes. My problem is the implicit assumption that the evolution will always and everywhere result in exactly the same level of gang size. And will it lead to less gangs immediately? No, probably not. But why not look at medium to longer term improvements…that has been your position on Medicare and our fiscal problems Dave. The inconsistency here is puzzling to me.

  • TastyBits

    A criminal record limits one’s job opportunities, and legalizing drugs will not expunge previous convictions. Gangs also do background checks, but a criminal record gives one a “leg up” over the other applicants.

    The extortion business uses many of the same skills as drug business. Thug on thug violence would be replaced with thug on non-thug violence. For some, this could be a reason to keep drugs illegal.

    I think there would be a reduction of gang members, but this would take time. As a stand-alone measure, it will not have the anticipated result. Unintended consequences occur even for measures one endorses.

    Law enforcement would need to be increased, but this would need to be dramatically different from what is done today. Proper police work includes “cracking skulls”. Proper police work also includes know how to distinguish the bad guys.

  • steve

    @PD- I dont support banning assault weapons on pragmatic grounds. It is just stupid with the number we already have, but how would it be unconstitutional. If you can own 2000 guns and a million rounds of ammunition, how is your right to bear arms infringed if you cant own 2 or 3 kinds of guns? We already limit the purchase of machine guns and dont allow people to own F-15s, RPGs and nuclear weapons.

    Steve

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