In favor of guns and body scans?

As the political implications of the Sandy Hook shooting begin revealing themselves and my inner gun skeptic burns with righteous indignation, I’ve become concerned with a possible hypocrisy in my professed views on civil rights that I likely share with some readers.

The U.S. has more assault-related deaths per capita than every other OECD country, and we also tend to have laxer gun control. Nearly 300,000 Americans died from gunshots in the 2000s. We’re replete with semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammo clips (both of which were used at Sandy Hook), gun shows that distribute firearms without background checks, and right-to-carry laws that permit citizens to carry weapons in public.

But post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, and the evidence for causation between gun control and lower gun violence is mixed. States with stricter laws tend to have lower rates of gun violence, but the connection is quite weak (as one might expect given the ease of transporting weapons across state lines). International comparisons are very difficult given the preponderance of variables that need to be controlled for, from economic factors and education to mental health services and criminal justice procedures. And while I find it intuitive that fewer, better regulated, and less powerful guns should lead to fewer gun deaths, it’s difficult to mount an ironclad case against a gun proponent’s intuition that, say, armed citizens can better protect themselves against armed criminals, and–most importantly–that determined criminals will find weapons regardless of regulations.

That last point is the disconcerting one for me, because it sounds much like the argument I make against the Transportation Security Administration: Determined terrorists won’t be thwarted by wimpy airport security procedures; they’ll find a way to cause damage. And while it’s difficult to demonstrate the counterfactual, the TSA has yet to produce evidence that they have prevented any terrorist attacks, which I find quite sufficient reason to be fed up with their curiously horny reign of anti-terror. In particular, I’m concerned that TSA procedures violate my Fourth Amendment rights (though the courts seem to disagree with me).

In other words, I believe that the government is compromising a constitutional guarantee on the basis of a dubious claim, with ambiguous-at-best supporting evidence, that the compromise is necessary for my safety. I also believe that the safety measure which requires the ostensible constitutional compromise will do little to prevent violence by resourceful criminals. What is the substantive difference between this position and the position of “gun rights” advocates vis-à-vis the Second Amendment? (Though I don’t necessarily agree with mainstream pro-gun, “individual rights” interpretations of the Second Amendment, once again the courts are not on my side.)

Perhaps there is at least a slight difference in the likely consequences of regulation in the two scenarios–because while TSA screening exacts real costs in the form of security line delays, children’s tears, and stolen iPads, it’s hard for me to believe that increased regulation of semi-automatic weapons would cause much practical inconvenience for people who don’t want to commit mass murder (despite some gun advocates’ paranoid predictions of unchecked tyranny over a defenseless citizenry). That is, even if gun control doesn’t effectively prevent gun crime, at least it probably won’t lead to the sexual harassment of six-year-olds. But that’s not an entirely satisfying consolation.

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  • Sherri Bergman  On 17 December 2012 at 4:44 pm

    “And while I find it intuitive that fewer, better regulated, and less powerful guns should lead to fewer gun deaths, it’s difficult to mount an ironclad case against a gun proponent’s intuition that, say, armed citizens can better protect themselves against armed criminals, and–most importantly–that determined criminals will find weapons regardless of regulations.”

    Perhaps, but the fewer there are of anything – the harder it is, by definition, to get our hands on it. While making guns scarcer might not deter the truly determined, long plotting, and premeditating murderer, it would certainly cut down on the number of crimes of passion and petty crimes that constitute the vast majority of gun deaths.

    Happy to see you blogging again.

    • Benjamin Miller  On 18 December 2012 at 11:01 am

      Thanks for the comment, Sherri! My intuition agrees with you completely, but the empirical data I’ve seen is entirely inconclusive. Even Justice Breyer in 2008 wrote, in his dissent in Heller, that it was impossible to determine whether the D.C. handgun ban led to a net decrease in crime. This study (, from the researcher the Court relied on in that case, concludes that “Gun control is a very minor, though not entirely irrelevant, part of the solution to the violence problem, just as guns are of only very minor significance as a cause of the problem.” States and countries that have instituted bans or other restrictions have not generally experienced decreases in violent crime. So why should I trust my intuition, but those on the other side of the issue shouldn’t trust theirs?

  • Liz M.  On 7 January 2013 at 12:57 pm

    I agree completely on the TSA, but I don’t think the comparison makes sense here. The TSA isn’t irrelevant because no security will stop terrorist attacks; it’s because the security is functioning elsewhere. The kind of terrorists who blow up planes spend weeks, months, years plotting their attacks. This means that the real security should rightfully happen before they even reach the airport. Gun violence, on the other hand, is often committed in a fit of passion, a mental break, or some other momentary lapse. Unlike terrorist attacks, there is rarely if ever a central organization from which communication and directives are coming, and often the acts are done alone. There can be no preemptive stopping of the crime, because often there is little preemptive nature to the crime, and little communication or other things that happen in collaborative acts that alert the authorities to something being awry.

    • Benjamin Miller  On 8 January 2013 at 12:42 pm

      I absolutely believe that advance intelligence is a more effective counter-terrorism strategy than airport security scans, and I think you’re right to say that gun violence often lacks the level of coordination and premeditation that would allow law enforcement to prevent it through analogous mechanisms. That doesn’t mean, however, that gun control is an effective mechanism either. Maybe there are alternative strategies that would work better, like improving mental health facilities, rehab programs, and other social services. But I still haven’t seen evidence to suggest that gun control is any more useful against gun violence than TSA screening is against terrorist attacks. Until such evidence materializes, I have to wonder why I advocate the former and castigate the latter.

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