Saturday, February 2, 2013


I'm going to try to lay out plainly a centrist and realistic assessment of the gun debate thus far. Obviously, I am no centrist, quite liberal in fact. But the goal of this article is to persuade people on the extremes of this debate to find common ground and go from there. I want to defuse what I see as some mythologies and try to shine a light on the facts as they are.

I am averse to hyperbole and overstatement. I will not tolerate slippery slope arguments because they derive their strength from something wholly non-existent. Just as I don't call people who oppose affirmative action racists, or a French socialist a communist, or a Neoconservative hawk a Fascist, so too will I deny any argument of tyranny by slippery slope. No matter how you parse it, tyrannical rule is a highly unlikely outcome from this debate.

But many will not be convinced by me merely saying such a thing. So I will start by taking pains to explain exactly why the current administration's actions are well within the bounds of the enumerated (read explicitly stated) powers of the executive branch, and why it is highly unlikely the rule of law could be breached through the current or foreseeable future proposals. Besides, it ain't constitutional to commit treason;

First, the right of the executive to direct the departments under its command is a well-established precedent; it's even in the Constitution under Article 2.3 “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Basically, the president can tell the executive departments what to do. So, here's a detailed review of how Obama's 3 executive orders affect the constitution and the public In short, they don't. I'll come back to some of this later.

Second, what would a tyrannical overstep of executive authority look like? In my opinion, there are three examples that I feel clearly show executive force beyond the bounds of constitutional authority. The Supreme Court however, has upheld every single one of these powers—something to think about when we talk about presidential power. The first example is John Adam's zealousness in suppressing anti-government opinions during the Quasi-war with the French by using the (congress approved) Alien and Sedition Acts. He detained prisoners indefinitely (4th 6th and 8th Amendments) and used them as a vehicle to suppress the media and free speech (1st Amendment). Notably, Jefferson later took advantage of the Acts despite his stated opposition. Second is the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II wherein 112,000 American citizens were indefinitely detained by executive order 9066, forcibly removing them from their homes under FDR's orders. I find this example to be a clear violation of many rights guaranteed by the constitution yet the Supreme Court upheld the laws under Korematsu v US. My third example is Bush's use of “signing statements” during his time in office to basically nullify the meaning of a given piece of legislation. These signing statements contained over 1,100 challenges to the meaning or intent of legislation he signed into law—often directly contradicting the meaning of lines contained in the bill. His statements, in effect, declared that the president did not have to follow the directives of Congress or enforce the bills they passed.

Obama, in his declarations, has been wholly within his historical, constitutional, and political bounds to do what he has done thus far. The way that his constitutional authority could have been exceeded is if one is to accept the argument that this is part of a power play to become a dictatorial authoritarian ruler over the long-term. And even then, his actions seem mild in comparison to the best known dictators. Hell, even American presidents have transgressed far more than he has. He hasn't even issued many executive orders—fewer than any president since Grover Cleveland ( Does anyone even remember Grover Cleveland?

So what were his executive orders? Here's the full list from the White House press brief: If you read the statement, one thing becomes pretty clear, we aren't doing much about guns. The often cited 20,000 state/federal gun laws statistic is really something much closer to 300—with the effectiveness of those laws remaining largely unresearched.

The majority of the 23 executive thingies (executive orders, memoranda, and other) focus on directing the agencies to make gun violence prevention and response higher priorities. That means allowing agencies to share information with the federal background check system (1). Looking into the barriers to information sharing in federal background checks that makes records incomplete or inaccurate (2, 3, 4). Prevent guns falling into unsafe hands through better enforcement of existing infrastructure (5, 6, 9 , 10, 16, 17, 20). Public outreach about gun safety, mental health, and emergency response (7, 8, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23). And finally, research and enforce gun violence (7, 8, 10, 11, 14).

And Obama proposed a series of legislative items aimed at curbing gun violence and increasing access to mental healthcare. I won't speak too much to these here because the senate hasn't even agreed to take up a draft of any of Obama's proposals. That means I'm not going to comment about “the assault weapons ban” until there is something relevant and real to talk about—as it stands it's a hail mary that has little footing (update: currently congress is evaluating some measures and I promise to take a full look at them in another post).

The two most notable actions to me are to nominate a director of the ATF (11) and to allow the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research (14). These actions are notable in how complacent we have become as a nation in thinking that our current laws have been enforced and that there is comprehensive scientific proof to our policies. The reality is that there is very little scientific guidance and little enforcement of existing laws.

The ATF is under some tough restrictions. Notably the ATF can't use computers to trace guns. The ATF can't do more than one spot check on a gun shop in a year. There hasn't been an ATF director for 6 years. The current interim director has another job; his main priority isn't the ATF. The ATF has about the same number of agents it did one decade ago. The ATF, is not allowed to do its job under current policies, And if you want the funnier version, I've omitted much more, but I think this is a sufficient outline. Our agency for cracking down on illegal guns, has been rendered ineffective. If we want to talk about reasonable enforcement of policies within a well-established framework, then we have to talk about allowing the ATF (around since 1886 in one form or another) to do its job.

From an admittedly liberal and biased piece about the ATF:

In 2003, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) inserted a series of amendments into a Department of Justice appropriations bill that prohibited the ATF from sharing information on weapons traces to the general public—effectively restricting researchers from detecting trends and potential loopholes in current policy. (A 1996 NRA-backed budget likewise prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the health effects of gun ownership.)

The same year, Congress, backed by the NRA, split the ATF off from the Department of Treasury and stipulated that its director be confirmed by the Senate, effectively giving the gun lobby veto power over who would run the agency. Since then, the ATF has simply gone leaderless. No nominee has been confirmed by the Senate after that policy went into effect—not even President Bush's pick. Without job security, acting ATF directors have had none of the political capital needed to reform the agency or run it at full throttle.” – It's worth mentioning that the statement, “ effectively giving the gun lobby veto power over who would run the agency” is hyperbole—unverifiable. It is plausible that the NRA has a sizable influence on the final decision given the outsize influence of the lobbying group on public policy.

And the second notable action—asking the CDC to conduct research into gun violence—is basic and indicative of our complacency once again. There should be no point in a public policy debate where research into the causes and effects are made illegal or nearly impossible to find. But under current provisions our national public health agency (the CDC) is not allowed to even provide grant funding for research into gun violence. Arguments I've seen range from the absurd to the downright contemptuous. The CDC is a public health agency and conducts research into a myriad of topics that are not technically disease—their primary mandate, in simple terms, is to research things with a common cause that kill or hurt Americans. The second argument I've heard is that the research they would commission is already biased because anyone who wants to know about gun violence wants to take away guns. This is patently absurd, the point of science is to take out bias. Don't believe me, look at Nate Silver during the election; the statistician that rigorously stuck to his data, outwitted both campaigns, and made Karl Rove melt-down on air. If there is bias in a study, under peer review it is unlikely to pass muster. Science doesn't do well with unverifiable data—policy on the other hand... Third is the fiscal argument; Obama wants $10 million for gun violence research. In such fiscally constrained times perhaps it's not the best investment. Look at it from the reverse though: there are approximately 11,000 gun homicides per year; with $10 million in funding that would equal approximately $909.00 per person killed. That is about the price of a new Microsoft Surface Pro. I'm not even going to list the ridiculous things we spend more than $909 on per person per year.

Gun violence is completely—but not totally—preventable. I mean that every individual incident of gun violence could have been stopped at multiple stages leading up to the event. I don't mean that it can be eradicated. I mean that much gun violence can be stopped, lowering the overall statistic.

There are two complementary sides to stopping gun violence. Reaction and prevention. Reaction pertains to all of the things that happen on the awful day that we have to deal with a gun being used with deadly force on a human. Prevention focuses on the events—or lack of events—that lead to that awful day and reducing the probability of “awful day” occurring.

With that in mind, most of the press on the Executive Thingies has been about prevention. The response from the NRA thus far has been about reaction; and notably, touting the effects of its Eddie Eagle program (it's probably a great program, but reliable data about its effects are hard to come by).

Let's take a moment to look at the NRA and see what has made this organization. Whom does the NRA speak for? Thank you Atlantic for writing an article about this already:

What I take away from the article—more than the funny (if you're liberal) digs—is that the NRA's diverse donors probably have little to do with the actual ideology of the organization. The NRA is most likely governed by its board of directors and the goals they see for what they should do—that's not exceptional. In light of polls that show NRA members in support of many measures that the NRA explicitly attacks, I see little that would make me believe that the NRA really looks to its members for guidance. Same goes for a lot of lobbying groups with individual members. I certainly don't support everything the Sierra Club does (e.g. its recent civil disobedience)—yet, I am a member.

NRA policy can reasonably be said to originate from the members of its core constituency (board and large donors) and not its wider membership base. That said, I think it's also reasonable to deduce that gun owners are a diverse group of individuals that have a wide range of opinions on gun control.

According to Gallup about 39% of the population owns a gun. I found this handy dandy article from 1998 about who owns guns: The data is a bit old but I suspect it has fluctuated little.

The point is that a lot of people own guns. The second amendment is alive and well; exercised everyday and without a well-regulated militia nonetheless. I think it can be stated that currently guns are only an endangered species in the stores where shop-owners cannot keep them on the shelves.

But 39%, even 50% (the NRA estimate), of the population isn't all of the population. That means gun ownership very likely includes ownership of multiple guns. There is approximately one gun for every American in this country. Yet only a fraction of the citizens own guns. It's instructive to note that there is a substantial portion of the population that owns a gun: Yeah, just read it for a handle on gun crime.

The most striking aspect is that there are no “peer” countries with nearly the same number of guns per capita. The United States has a gun ownership rate far above that of any other nation in the world and double Switzerland (which is often cited as an example of a low crime high gun society). More than anything the relationship of any given statistic and gun violence is hard to deduce.

What is known is that there is a lot of anger about the government “taking away our guns.” More or less that is the quote. The solution seems to be to use the guns currently owned to rise up against the government. I'll freely admit that under the Bush administration that was a thought often tossed about idly (and without much seriousness) by my liberal family after a few drinks. In the years since, I have seriously revised that thought process. Who would rise up with me? How would that come about? Would Red Dawn originate in my living room? How would we establish a new government? What would be more Democratic about it as opposed to the current system? How could I know I was in the right? Would that be justification to take up arms against other humans?

Alex Jones is wrong. 1776 won't happen again—probably. It's about to get hypothetical up in here. 1776 was not the modern day; an 'uprising' would look very different. What would likely happen is another Oklahoma City bombing or Army of God or another mass shooting. And who would be hurt? I can guarantee it won't be the strong. Will the gays take-over? Will the women? Will the minorities? Who would take-over, and what would their regime look like? I don't want to conjecture on this too much because it is just that; conjecture. An uprising in a stable government with fair representation is indistinguishable from a riot.

And what would happen then? When police presence fails, the army or the national guard steps in. During the Rodney King riots, Marines used their fully automatic weapons to subdue the populace. Reading about the brutality of a mere riot—with a clear political cause—and the ease which it was suppressed by government agents with training gives me severe doubt to the plausibility of a rebellion. See also, Waco, Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, American Indian Wars, etc.

Today Mr. LaPierre testified before congress. Among his remarks were answers in a similar vein to Alex Jones's. Notably he mentioned the need for a gun during a natural disaster—Katrina and Sandy offer two substantially different case studies of that hypothesis. During Katrina, armed looters used weapons to enforce chaos during the days when FEMA could not get into New Orleans. During Sandy, with a sufficient preparation and rapid response, FEMA was able to establish order quickly and provide assistance. Looting and unruly behavior due to the storm was negligible. Make no mistake that a swift government response is far preferable to vigilante or mob justice.

Let's focus on what we can do 'now'--perhaps more accurately, the hypothetical things we can do now. One of the NRA's proposals has been to put police in every school. Unfortunately, given our economic reality that isn't possible. While we do have officers in about 1/3 of our schools currently, an expansion of a police presence into every school would run in the billions of dollars. Or it would divert already strained resources away from current areas where police are needed. Then there is the training needed for officers at our schools. That would also cost money.

After that there is the difficulty of where else officers should be. Should there be an officer in every movie theater as in Aurora? Every Sikh temple as in Wisconsin? Every mall as in Tuscon or Clackamas? How much are we willing to expand our police presence, especially when there is a burgeoning fear of government presence in our everyday lives? And how much are we willing to spend on it? Would we be free in a society with such a strong police presence? Is there another less force-driven approach that could reasonably reduce violence and cost less? Probably.

Further, police presence is no guarantee of safety. There were armed officers on-site at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Clackamas, Tuscon, and many others. The shootings in Clackamas and Tuscon even had armed citizens on the scene, but during both those events the good citizen almost shot the wrong person. They also slowed the police response by diverting officers attention to subduing the 'good citizen'. A good guy with a gun isn't always able to stop a bad guy with a gun. As a side note, 75% of people live when given CPR on TV. The actual rate is about 8%. If someone collapses, call 911, get an AED and start CPR immediately.

What about the argument of deterrence? Does the uncertainty of a gun under every coat, in every home, and every purse deter criminals from committing crimes? With between 40% and 50% of individuals owning guns and the highest number of individuals in this country's history with CCW's (conceal and carry permits) I don't think it's an unreasonable assumption that there is already possibly a deterring effect of gun ownership. In other words, the likelihood someone owns a gun in this country is higher than the likelihood of meeting someone who is a self-declared Democrat (36%) or Republican (30%)

The problem is in measurement. Crime is a tricky problem to look at—especially deterrence. There has been some substantial research done on the deterrent effects of the death penalty on homicide rates. The data can hardly be said to be conclusive. Research has generally found no deterring effect, but some papers have found the slightest deterring effect. Just above statistically significant. What the data shows definitely is that deterrence is a logical argument at the theoretical level but one that is extraordinarily difficult to determine in the real world (I think this is the book I read in college that wend over deterrence, but it might be the constitutional analysis—the actual books I read aren't at my fingertips at the moment).

So does everyone owning guns (and this is purely hypothetical at this point because not everyone would ever own a gun) deter criminals? Probably not in a very measurable way. If the answer to a given question were based on a difficult to prove hypothesis, I would rather stick with a more easily measured conclusion. The variables alone would be mind-boggling to try to account for—density of population, background, knowledge of gun ownership, saturation of guns in the region, socio-economic factors, etc. Seriously, it could go on for a long-time.

Deterrence is out.

What's left is the void we occupy now—the actual now, not one based on fantasies. The space where some of the things we've tried seem to work, where some don't, where there is insufficient data to move forward smartly, where the constitution limits our actions, where we are at a loss to address the horror of losing 30,000 people per year to improper use of guns, and where we are unable to provide assistance to those who need it most.

Now we start taking action. Our leaders in congress and in governments all over the country have embarked upon the tedious process of trying to craft policy to help. And my solution is the same I always come to. Talk to someone you don't agree with. Try to understand every facet of their positions, know and respect their values. Find ideas together. Then engage with your local government. Write letters, call congressmen, speak candidly and without hatred.

And finally, do something for your community. Get to know your neighbors. Strengthen community bonds. A lion's pride is in a group that works together—so too should ours be. There isn't a more peaceful or effective solution to gun violence than working together to stop it.