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October 02, 2015

Subjective explainer: gun debate in the US

In the wake of the tragic events in Roseburg, I decided to briefly return to the topic of looking at the US culture from the perspective of a person born in Europe. In particular, I wanted to circle back to the topic of firearms.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the United States has witnessed a dramatic decline in violence over the past 20 years. In fact, when it comes to most types of violent crime - say, robbery, assault, or rape - the country now compares favorably to the UK and many other OECD nations. But as I explored in my earlier posts, one particular statistic - homicide - is still registering about three times as high as in many other places within the EU.

The homicide epidemic in the United States has a complex nature and overwhelmingly affects ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged social groups; perhaps because of this, the phenomenon sees very little honest, public scrutiny. It is propelled into the limelight only in the wake of spree shootings and other sickening, seemingly random acts of terror; such incidents, although statistically insignificant, take a profound mental toll on the American society. At the same time, the effects of high-profile violence seem strangely short-lived: they trigger a series of impassioned political speeches, invariably focusing on the connection between violence and guns - but the nation soon goes back to business as usual, knowing full well that another massacre will happen soon, perhaps the very same year.

On the face of it, this pattern defies all reason - angering my friends in Europe and upsetting many brilliant and well-educated progressives in the US. They utter frustrated remarks about the all-powerful gun lobby and the spineless politicians, blaming the partisan gridlock for the failure to pass even the most reasonable and toothless gun control laws. I used to be in the same camp; today, I think the reality is more complex than that.

To get to the bottom of this mystery, it helps to look at the spirit of radical individualism and classical liberalism that remains the national ethos of the United States - and in fact, is enjoying a degree of resurgence unseen for many decades prior. In Europe, it has long been settled that many individual liberties - be it the freedom of speech or the natural right to self-defense - can be constrained to advance even some fairly far-fetched communal goals. On the old continent, such sacrifices sometimes paid off, and sometimes led to atrocities; but the basic premise of European collectivism is not up for serious debate. In America, the same notion certainly cannot be taken for granted today.

When it comes to firearm ownership in particular, the country is facing a fundamental choice between two possible realities:

  • A largely disarmed society that depends on the state to protect it from almost all harm, and where citizens are generally not permitted to own guns without presenting a compelling cause. In this model, adopted by many European countries, firearms tend to be less available to common criminals - simply by the virtue of limited supply and comparatively high prices in black market trade. At the same time, it can be argued that any nation subscribing to this doctrine becomes more vulnerable to foreign invasion or domestic terror, should its government ever fail to provide adequate protection to all citizens. Disarmament can also limit civilian recourse against illegitimate, totalitarian governments - a seemingly outlandish concern, but also a very fresh memory for many European countries subjugated not long ago under the auspices of the Soviet Bloc.

  • A well-armed society where firearms are available to almost all competent adults, and where the natural right to self-defense is subject to few constraints. This is the model currently employed in the United States, where it arises from the straightfoward, originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment - as recognized by roughly 75% of all Americans and affirmed by the Supreme Court. When following such a doctrine, a country will likely witness greater resiliency in the face of calamities or totalitarian regimes. At the same time, its citizens might have to accept some inherent, non-trivial increase in violent crime due to the prospect of firearms more easily falling into the wrong hands.

It seems doubtful that a viable middle-ground approach can exist in the United States. With more than 300 million civilian firearms in circulation, most of them in unknown hands, the premise of reducing crime through gun control would inevitably and critically depend on some form of confiscation; without such drastic steps, the supply of firearms to the criminal underground or to unfit individuals would not be disrupted in any meaningful way. Because of this, intellectual integrity requires us to look at many of the legislative proposals not only through the prism of their immediate utility, but also to give consideration to the societal model they are likely to advance.

And herein lies the problem: many of the current "common-sense" gun control proposals have very little merit when considered in isolation. There is scant evidence that reinstating the ban on military-looking semi-automatic rifles ("assault weapons"), or rolling out the prohibition on private sales at gun shows, would deliver measurable results. There is also no compelling reason to believe that ammo taxes, firearm owner liability insurance, mandatory gun store cameras, firearm-free school zones, bans on open carry, or federal gun registration can have any impact on violent crime. And so, the debate often plays out like this:

At the same time, by the virtue of making weapons more difficult, expensive, and burdensome to own, many of the legislative proposals floated by progressives would probably gradually erode the US gun culture; intentionally or not, their long-term outcome would be a society less passionate about firearms and more willing to follow in the footsteps of Australia or the UK. Only as we cross that line and confiscate hundreds of millions of guns, it's fathomable - yet still far from certain - that we would see a sharp drop in homicides.

This method of inquiry helps explain the visceral response from gun rights advocates: given the legislation's dubious benefits and its predicted long-term consequences, many pro-gun folks are genuinely worried that making concessions would eventually mean giving up one of their cherished civil liberties - and on some level, they are right.

Some feel that this argument is a fallacy, a tell tale invented by a sinister corporate "gun lobby" to derail the political debate for personal gain. But the evidence of such a conspiracy is hard to find; in fact, it seems that the progressives themselves often fan the flames. In the wake of Roseburg, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came out praising the confiscation-based gun control regimes employed in Australia and the UK - and said that they would like the US to follow suit. Depending on where you stand on the issue, it was either an accidental display of political naivete, or the final reveal of their sinister plan. For the latter camp, the ultimate proof of a progressive agenda came a bit later: in response to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, several eminent Democratic-leaning newspapers published scathing editorials demanding civilian disarmament while downplaying the attackers' connection to Islamic State.

Another factor that poisons the debate is that despite being highly educated and eloquent, the progressive proponents of gun control measures are often hopelessly unfamiliar with the very devices they are trying to outlaw:

I'm reminded of the widespread contempt faced by Senator Ted Stevens following his attempt to compare the Internet to a "series of tubes" as he was arguing against net neutrality. His analogy wasn't very wrong - it just struck a nerve as simplistic and out-of-date. My progressive friends did not react the same way when Representative Carolyn McCarthy - one of the key proponents of the ban on assault weapons - showed no understanding of the supposedly lethal firearm features she was trying to eradicate. Such bloopers are not rare, too; not long ago, Mr. Bloomberg, one of the leading progressive voices on gun control in America, argued against semi-automatic rifles without understanding how they differ from the already-illegal machine guns:

Yet another example comes Representative Diana DeGette, the lead sponsor of a "common-sense" bill that sought to prohibit the manufacture of magazines with capacity over 15 rounds. She defended the merits of her legislation while clearly not understanding how a magazine differs from ammunition - or that the former can be reused:

"I will tell you these are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those know they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available."

Treating gun ownership with almost comical condescension has become vogue among a good number of progressive liberals. On a campaign stop in San Francisco, Mr. Obama sketched a caricature of bitter, rural voters who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them". Not much later, one Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post spoke of the Second Amendment as "the refuge of bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches". Many of the newspaper's readers probably had a good laugh - and then wondered why it has gotten so difficult to seek sensible compromise.

There are countless dubious and polarizing claims made by the supporters of gun rights, too; examples include a recent NRA-backed tirade by Dana Loesch denouncing the "godless left", or the constant onslaught of conspiracy theories spewed by Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. But when introducing new legislation, the burden of making educated and thoughtful arguments should rest on its proponents, not other citizens. When folks such as Bloomberg prescribe sweeping changes to the American society while demonstrating striking ignorance about the topics they want to regulate, they come across as elitist and flippant - and deservedly so.

Given how controversial the topic is, I think it's wise to start an open, national conversation about the European model of gun control and the risks and benefits of living in an unarmed society. But it's also likely that such a debate wouldn't last very long. Progressive politicians like to say that the dialogue is impossible because of the undue influence of the National Rifle Association - but as I discussed in my earlier blog posts, the organization's financial resources and power are often overstated: it does not even make it onto the list of top 100 lobbyists in Washington, and its support comes mostly from member dues, not from shadowy business interests or wealthy oligarchs. In reality, disarmament just happens to be a very unpopular policy in America today: the support for gun ownership is very strong and has been growing over the past 20 years - even though hunting is on the decline.

Perhaps it would serve the progressive movement better to embrace the gun culture - and then think of ways to curb its unwanted costs. Addressing inner-city violence, especially among the disadvantaged youth, would quickly bring the US homicide rate much closer to the rest of the highly developed world. But admitting the staggering scale of this social problem can be an uncomfortable and politically charged position to hold. For Democrats, it would be tantamount to singling out minorities. For Republicans, it would be just another expansion of the nanny state.

PS. If you are interested in a more systematic evaluation of the scale, the impact, and the politics of gun ownership in the United States, you may enjoy an earlier entry on this blog. Or, if you prefer to read my entire series comparing the life in Europe and in the US, try this link.


  1. >the all-powerful gun lobby and the spineless politicians

    The gun lobby gets it's power from the people they represent, like me, an NRA member. Politicians understand that the "lobby" represents millions of voters like me. They're not spineless, they're smart enough to understand that the NRA represents and gets most of it's money from voters like me.

    >firearms are far less available to criminals

    How do you suppose they're going to get over 300 million guns out of circulation? Only the law abiding will give them up, criminals by definition will not. Of course many of us law abiding citizens will respect the Constitution and will never give up that freedom.

    >sourcing them in the black market is more expensive and carries greater risks

    Wrong again. A gang member can get a Glock from someone they know for as little as $80, a gun that goes for over $500 new. Many neighborhoods in bad parts of the city will have a "neighborhood gun" stashed. Illegal guns are usually stolen and traded for drugs.

    >by making weapons more expensive and burdensome to own, such regulation is likely to weaken the US gun culture

    Just like the origins of gun control in the USA, this would be essentially racist because those poor minorities who live in the places with the highest crime wouldn't be able to afford a gun for self defense. It also would most likely be deemed unconstitutional.

    >Progressive politicians like to say that such a debate is impossible because of the undue influence of the National Rifle Association - but as I discussed in my earlier blog posts, the organization's financial resources and power are often overstated.

    Like I said above, the NRA doesn't have "undue" influence, they get their power from millions of voters like me, not from corporations. In fact, very little percentage of their income comes from advertising compared to member dues.

    >Addressing the inner-city violence, especially among the disadvantaged youth, would quickly bring the US homicide rate much closer to the rest of the highly developed world. But admitting the staggering scale of this social problem is an uncomfortable political position to take.

    Now you're right on target! If you took the most violent inner city crime ridden areas and subtracted the gang warfare killings, gun violence in America would be a non issue. It's no coincidence that the most "Progressive" cities have the highest crime rates and the most shootings while also being well known for their restrictive gun laws. We don't have a gun culture problem in America, we have a culture problem, and we have a mental health problem.

    The European model of gun control will never fly here in the USA. Our heritage was built on a foundation of freedom, distrust of government, and guns. I for one will never give up my Constitutionally protected freedom over the actions of criminals. Where would that end if we constantly eroded our rights every time criminals keep crossing that line? Virtual slavery?

    1. Hey Steve,

      I don't think we're disagreeing :-) The scenario I am describing in the first bullet item is specifically the European / US post-confiscation model, and one of the two real choices I see (without judging their value). If you read this:'ll actually probably find that we have broadly similar views. In particular, it expands on the topic of the NRA, etc.

    2. I understand. I hadn't read your other blog posts and this one came across as one arguing for more gun control with some good points as well. I'll have to check out your other posts. Thanks

    3. @Steve: "Wrong again. A gang member can get a Glock from someone they know for as little as $80"

      ... not, I think, in most nations with well-established gun control laws, which is the context in which that sentence was written.

      "How do you suppose they're going to get over 300 million guns out of circulation? Only the law abiding will give them up, criminals by definition will not."

      Certainly a genuine problem in putting such a change into practice, but this is probably irrelevant if the US doesn't wish to make the change in the first place! I'm not convinced that it would necessarily be impossible; criminals would not be stockpiling weapons for future generations, after all, if they've got them they'd eventually want to use them, and sooner or later they'd be found and destroyed. It might take ten, twenty years or more, but you'd get there in the end.

      The fact that so many US citizens would likely choose civil disobedience would perhaps be a bigger problem than the outright criminals, because they *would* be stockpiling weapons for future generations. But it's also what makes the point moot, at least for the time being - you're never going to get the sort of consensus necessary to change the constitution, not in the foreseeable future at any rate. And if that ever did happen, it would mean that US society had changed so much that we can't realistically guess at the outcome.

  2. Michal Zalewski, this is a perceptive post - thanks for writing it. Your point that many advocates of gun control don't really understand guns or "gun culture" is an important one, and this ignorance undermines their effectiveness.

    Something I've found interesting to think about: drunk driving and gun violence kill a comparable number of people per year in the U.S. No one is for drunk driving, few progressives (myself included) would be willing to propose restricting access to alcohol or vehicles. Why? Because we progressives like our drinks and cars, even though they kill people. But guns? We don't like those, and we don't like the backward right-wing hicks that do like them. So we're fine with restricting those.

    One especially tone-deaf thing you see in these gun control debates is that guns are different because they're designed specifically to injure people. But I think that just illustrates how little gun control advocates understand guns - they know about hunting or collecting maybe, but they think that's some side use.

    I personally would like to see fewer guns in the U.S. (and less alcohol use, for that matter), but I don't think that trying to change laws is a very good way to get to that outcome. That said, I don't know what a good way to get to that outcome would be - but it probably starts with trying to understand the other side.

  3. I also thank you for this text, the most reasonable opinion on guns and gun control I have ever read from the other side of the Atlantic. I observe firearms culture and the gun debate from the position of a Polish citizen working on getting my firearms license and the state of this discussion in the US really saddens me, because it is often projected onto gun debates else in the world, Poland included.

    I was recently contemplating this strange polarization of the views in US medias and politics. There seems to be nothing in between pro-gunners and gun control advocates, only extremes in this discussion. This is particularly interesting from the political point of view, as USA has a two party system and one of the major differentiators among them is the view on private gun ownership (both sides seem to be ok with arming the military and "policing" the rest of the world though). If I was a citizen in the US I wouldn't know who to vote for as my personal views are a mix of postulates from both parties. I'm curious if the general population is as polarized as their political leadership. Naturally I would assume that the truth is somewhere in the middle and a compromise could be made. This being that in general guns are viewed as a part of life and it is understood that regulation is necessary, but it should be only mild to reduce the number of gun illegaly obtained for criminal purposes while keeping them available for lawful ownership. Countries like Canada and Switzerland are nice examples of this as far as I understand their laws and rationales.

    I also believe Poland will slowly start moving in this direction after the elections this month.

    1. I try to touch on the causes of this polarization in the article - and I think it basically comes down to a fundamental disagreement over whether the US should treat the Second Amendment as a fundamental civil liberty and an individual right, or whether it should be reinterpreted as something else, morphing into a state-given privilege handled similarly to how Europe does it (and then we can debate if it should be the Swedish model or the German one or the Polish one).

      The former view is supported by the originalist interpretation of the text, the historical context, the recent decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, and is consistent with the sentiments across much of the country.

      The latter view is popular with progressive scholars, journalists, many of the country's wealthiest folks, and by some prominent Democrats, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

      This is further complicated by the fact that the US is in a fairly unique position - there really are 300-350 million guns out there, most of them unregistered and in unknown hands. I mean, it is sort of crazy: a burglar can stroll into *any* house in the US, and there is a 30-50% he will be able to steal a gun. In fact, 200,000 are stolen every year!

      When you realize the scale of this, it's really hard to think of solutions that limit the availability of guns to criminals without interfering with the gun culture - or outright confiscating firearms.

  4. One thing doesn't seem to add up. You seem to claim that pulling 300 million guns "off the market" is next to impossible. Well, yes, this seems hopeless. But how many firearms were there in Europe after WWII? 1 million? 10 million? 100 million? 1 billion? I suspect that 100 million firearms were in private hands (but I might be mistaken). And if I'm right, then how come that Europe had managed to disarm its citizens and the US can not?

    1. I think it's hard to get meaningful, hard data from that long ago, but I *suspect* that civilian gun ownership actually wasn't that high in many European countries, being reserved for the nobility, who used weapons chiefly for hunting. Limited access to weapons likely played a role in the struggles of the resistance in places such as Poland or France, and hastened Hitler's progression in Europe.

      If you mean soldier's weapons - I'm pretty sure that WWII was fought chiefly by regular armies, and when they were done, it's likely that they took the guns with them (and confiscated or destroyed the ones belonging to the enemy). But I haven't studied the topic, so I don't want to make things up.

      It's also worth noting that contrary to stereotypes, many countries in Europe do maintain a gun culture and do have surprisingly high rates of gun ownership. There's *plenty* of guns in places such as Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, or most Nordic countries - some of them boast 30-50 guns per 100 people, not that far off from the United States.

      There are several exceptions, including Poland (~1 gun per 100 people, probably a product of foreign partitions and Soviet control) and the UK. The UK did indeed willingly disarm itself, although to be fair, they still have gun ownership rates waaay higher than in Poland (~7 per 100, IIRC).

      From what I understand, in the UK, it was a slow and gradual process that spanned several decades - starting with registration and culminating with confiscation. Interestingly, similarly to Australia, the process did not have particularly clear impact on overall crime rates, although it did reduce the amount of gun violence (still, merely offsetting gun homicides with other types homicides).

      I think that if you can wait several decades and can sell the public on the idea, you should be able to pull it off in the US, too. But that's basically the first choice I mention in the blog post - disarmament. It just happens to be pretty unpopular today, and when done against people's will, it's going to be an extremely difficult thing.

    2. As Michał mentioned, those guns mostly stayed in posession of the military. Most of guns that didn't were lost at the battlefields due to corrosion, unmaintained gun can quite quickly become unusable or go beyond repairable state. After the war one of the priorities of probably every country was to eliminate the minority of guns in civilian hands.

      Two basic approaches are to legalize and take them or enact severe punishments for possesion. Countries under Soviet control obviously used the second option almost exclusively. Possible punishments for possesion of a firearm in Poland included long jail time or even death and executions weren't uncommon. The goal of the second option, legalization, was used to bring those guns into some form of control by the state and so the authorities were aware of actual number of them. Amnesties were also used so citizens could turn them in and not be punished for possesion.

      Generally in Europe laws are constructed to limit allowed practical usage of legally owned guns. Typically there is little or no possibility to carry guns, but the process of obtaining a license and conditions under which guns need to be stored or used are also purposedly complicated. Overall goal seems to be to place so many obstacles to deter average person from even applying. Level of validity of those obstacles varies from targeted exclusively at gun ownership (like large license fees) to those that exist for genunine gun related crime redution, like background and mental health checks, but in general most are considered to be reasonable.

      Similar approach is sometimes tried in the US, however proposed regulations are often more aggressive and targeted exclusively at legal gun owners in my opinion, not at the problems related to gun violence itself. This is probably part of the reason this is so hard to pass any regulation in the US, bills mostly impact legal ownership (the "average Americans"), so the natural reaction of pro-gun organizations is a fierce resistance. Those people see a real threat to what they assume to be a fundamental right with no gain to them or the general population. Things like magazine capacity limits, trying to ban "assault weapons" (a completely misused term) or certain types of ammunition have little or no impact on general criminal use of firearms. Even less for mass shootings. But this is just my opinion and it certainly doesn't cover every problem in US gun debate.