The Gun Debate itself: a synthesis

I’ve gotten pretty burned out on following the current gun debate. I think at this point all sides are pretty much argued out and there’s probably little new to say. After reading all the posts pro- and anti- firearm, I think some generalizations can be made about what the debate is over; and I wanted to see whether we can at least agree on what we disagree about. What I’ve drawn from the gun debate is this:

We make choices in life over whether the usefulness (the “utility”) of something outweighs its potential risks. This applies to things like automobiles, alcohol (and the combination of those two), tobacco, airplane travel, nuclear energy, coal mines, swimming pools, carrying knives, etc. And then there is the issue of firearms, which are almost unique in that beyond their use in hunting or target sport, their purpose is to inflict potentially deadly incapacitating injury, or to threaten to. Given the well known and documented risks and drawbacks of guns- their use in murder, robbery and suicide, and the potential for accidents- whether guns are an overall boon or bane for society must depend on their positive traits- their utility.

It seems to me that the entire gun debate ultimately comes down to a disagreement on what the utility of guns is, with people mostly divided into two camps with very different assessments of the issue. The pro-gun camp of those who currently own guns or might at another time, and the anti-gun camp of those who do not want to ever own a gun…

The reasoning of the anti-gun people appears to go something like this: they’ve lived their entire lives just fine without owning a gun, and the rare instances that guns are needed should be handled by the police. They feel that the risks of guns are so high that only specialists trained to the highest possible standard to maximize guns’ utility should be entrusted with them, and to only employ them once circumstances desperate enough to warrant summoning these specialists. The non-gun people are extremely dubious of the ability of anyone other than trained experts to possess and use guns properly; they consider the utility of guns in private hands as virtually zero. In light of the known drawbacks of guns, private gun possession is a negative for public safety.

The reasoning of the pro-gun people appears to go something like this: the utility of guns is underrated because a large part of their value is in deterrence, and by definition one cannot know how many crimes never happened because of guns. That gun control laws actually reduce the utility of guns, by denying them to law-abiding citizens while being little deterrent to criminals and psychotics. That the training of police officers is not as stringent as many people suppose and that ordinary citizens can be equally well-trained in the defensive use of guns.

Both sides criticize the other in more or less mirror-image ways. Each side claims the other is uninformed, ignorant, irrational, delusional or pursuing an ideological agenda that is either unsound or actually evil.

The reason this debate will never end is that it’s structurally entrenched in the US geography/demographics.

In rural areas, where you know all your neighbors, where you are miles from the nearest police protection, where your cell coverage is minimal, where you teach your kids to shoot anyway to keep the coyotes off the chickens, it’s rational and even obvious that having a gun for self protection is the best idea. There is a great deal of land in the USA in this mold.

In urban areas, where you live in a multistory apartment building with strangers above and below you, where your kids go to the park once a week and are texting the entire time, where the police are patrolling frequently, it would be a really nice idea to have no guns at all around, and having a gun makes you likelier to die from one, especially if you are not trained in its use, and you have little reason to be trained. A whole lot of the citizens of the USA live in areas like this.

And both groups have to live under the same set of laws. Hence, no end to the debate.

As someone on the antigun side, I agree with your framing.

However, I would argue that we *do *know pretty well what society would look like without guns. There are plenty of other countries with far more restrictive gun laws than the United States and they have been able to dramatically reduce gun deaths without triggering crime waves or governmental tyranny.

I’d add two other points to that list:

Guns allow a smaller, weaker person to defend himself from an attack by a bigger, stronger, or armed opponent, or from multiple opponents. They are currently the ONLY tool we have that can do that.

No matter how many police we hire, they can’t be everywhere. Many areas are going to have a response time measured in tens of minutes, and by the time the police arrive any attack is going to be over. All they can do is pick up the bodies and mop up the blood. If someone attacks you, you can’t count on the police arriving in time to save you.

While your general framing accurately represents the two extremes (ban all guns, don’t ban any guns) it seems to ignore the middle.

For example, I respect the utility of long guns for hunting and handguns for self defense. I would oppose any attempt to ban either. However, I don’t see the utility of 30-round magazines, except for recreational target shooting (a rather limited utility, IMO). Similarly, it seems to me that the only utility of miltary-style weapons (variants that are designed to specifically look like military equivalents) is aesthetic. And, as we’ve seen, one of the risks of these weapons is that they appeal strongly to mentally unstable individuals that are unhealthily immersed in military fantasy. The availability of these weapons give them a way to live out these fantasies in a way that a non-“scary looking” weapon would not.

So there are, I think, reasonable reasons to have a scale of utility and focus on those areas where the utility is lower and the risk is higher.

Good points. I’m 5’-3" and the police in at least one area of my fair city intentionally delay answering burglar alarms because of the high rate of false alarms.

Jas09, I expect most people (both gun owners and non-gun owners) would agree with you. I’m currently a handgun owner, who bought her guns for defense and target shooting; while I’d fight against any proposal to ban my semiautomatic pistols, I wouldn’t reject offhand proposals which make such guns harder to get. Background checks before all purchases, limiting magazines to ten rounds or less, raising the age at which you can purchase a handgun to 25 (when the frontal lobes are developed and the testosterone poisoning starts to subside), requiring a person take and pass a handgun safety course before they can buy their first handgun, mandating storage of handguns in a safe when they are not in use, and requiring additional training (including passing a range test) before issuing a carry permit are all fine with me. I think they’d be fine with most gun owners as well.

It’s too bad we can’t seem to keep the extremists on both sides of the issue from getting in the way of passing some sensible laws which would minimally inconvenience law-abiding gun owners while helping to reduce the high level of gun crime in this country. It’s a problem I don’t know how to solve.

If you’re a member of the NRA, let them know that you won’t be if they don’t come to the table with some ideas this time.

The debate about the social utility of firearms is a big part of it, but there are also arguments about balancing social utility against individual liberty and privacy. That is, that certain reductions in social utility are permissible to avoid curtailing individual rights.

And, of course, “social utility” is often defined in different ways by different people. Some on the pro-2A side feel that increasing the ability of the citizen militia to violently overthrow the government is a net benefit to social utility, while others see it as a detriment.

Can I add another aspect?

Some folks seem genuinely unaware of the many incidents in which armed citizens deter crime, so much so that they believe such incidents are rare or even non-existent. And this is not because of wilfull blindness: as a general rule, these kinds of incidents don’t seem to be all that newsworthy. But every month, the NRA’s “Rifleman” magazine devotes their first few pages to listing the incidents from the past month from around the country. Every month, at least ten stories are presented – and I don’t know a single one of those stories was ever played nationally. Unless you’re looking for them, in other other words, those stories don’t exist.

This certain plays into developing the mindset that gun possession for personal protection is of limited utility.

I love those stories and I am impressed how the NRA also lists the suicides, accidental deaths, and names of people murdered. The special end-of-year edition which will list the kids killed in Connecticut will be a collectors item.

Perhaps you are thinking of NPR. :slight_smile:

That’s a big one. There would be great social utility in censoring the Internet so that idiots like Stormfront and the anti-vaccine nutters couldn’t publish their ideas, in banning the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting, and banning publications like The Anarchist’s Cookbook, but we don’t do such things because we believe that curtailing the right to free speech would cause more overall net harm that what we’re trying to ban. The pro-gun side feels the same way about severely curtailing the right of individuals to bear arms.

Of course, we DO legally ban some speech - there’s no right to libel someone, and no right to incite a riot. And that principle can be applied to the Second Amendment as well as the first; the disagreement’s about where the lines between permissible and impermissible should be drawn.

There was a magazine size limit in the USA at one time, was there not?

It was part of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban that sunsetted in 2004. It prohibited the manufacture of magazines holding more than 10 rounds, but did not ban existing ones.

Why should we be concerned about either of those when it comes to regulating firearms? Accidental deaths have fallen dramatically over the past few decades as a result of educating people about safe handling and storage of firearms; they don’t represent a significant problem today. And suicide’s a personal choice. We should make sure people are aware before they buy a gun that having one might increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt being successful, but ultimately it’s not the government’s job to keep people from killing themselves.

Murder (or rather the prevention of it) is another matter. That IS a proper concern of the government, and provides a justification for government regulation.

How many examples of defensive gun uses (setting aside any questions about their dubious nature) would not have been resolved in the same fashion if the defensive gun were a revolver?

I think the additional distiction worth mentioning is whether we want to remain a society that promotes and enshrines gun culture through a constitutional amendment, or, one that recognizes that the utility of such a right is no longer applicable and on balance causes more harm than good.

Utility is a funny thing. Many times I’ve argued it with assault weapons and many times pro gun people refuse to answer the charge and come back with something akin to the belief that it doesn’t matter if it has a use or not, the argument should only focus on why the government should be allowed to ban it. If they can’t articulate that, they claim, then even if an item has no utility, it shouldn’t be banned. In such cases, these people ignore the potential risks of the weapon while throwing back the argument so that the gun control side is on the defensive. Its a fallacious tactic, and they win solely because nobody can get them to answer the question, but its a fallacy nonetheless.

Why does one need an assault rifle? There is almost no situation in which one needs it for defense, thus it should be banned. If the only argument is crazy fantasies of some government takeover, then its a lost argument

Not only that, the more guns there are, there are exponentially more untrained people using them. Its not just I don’t trust one person with a gun, but I don’t trust the amount of guns out there with the amount of untrained people. Add to that the usual fears about slippery slope from the pro gun side that refuses at all to support meaningful regulations, such as safety locks, registration, then it becomes the fact that pro gun people actively enforce the lawless dubiousness of gun ownership. If they actually get some gun regulations passed, I’d be less suspicious of their motives. But as long as they oppose that, in my eyes they’ll be a bunch of Yosemite Sam’s and not James Bonds

Deterrence would be a more convincing argument if there were actually killings like the one in CT stopped by gun owners on a regular basis. Pro gun people forget that we’re not starting the argument from scratch here. We’re starting from the point where we already have mass shootings and thousands of deaths per year by guns. If deterrence actually works, why are there still so many shootings? Maybe they simply want us to imagine how bad it would be in a world where there’s no deterrence and even more gun violence, but the world we’re living in is already pretty bad with regards to gun violence. Their arguments are not convincing.

Self-reporting of when you were able to stop a crime and be a hero using your Rambo style shooting tactics is not newsworthy. I have fantasies like that too, but they involve swords and aliens. The NRA can put whatever they want in their magazine but you don’t have to believe it. You will if it feeds into your narrative that guns are used all the time to stop crime, but I’d hardly call these people objective observers

This. A thousand times this.