When we finally start talking about gun control, what should we say?

I love policy discussions, but the demands for policy discussion on gun control after the shootings in Newtown today are terribly wrong-headed.

The problem is that demanding a policy discussion is not the same thing as having a policy discussion. At this point, we’re just talking about talking about gun control. It’s all “mention” and no “use.” It’d be nice if folks would actually start proposing laws. Like: limits on magazine size. Ammo taxes. Closing the gun show loophole. Or even…


I’d love to talk about gun prohibition. (Notice, this isn’t even the same policy debate as “gun control.”) Unfortunately, if we start talking about gun prohibition, then we will be forced to confront how badly prohibition is working in other markets. There are three hundred and ten million guns in the US. (Yes! 310,000,000!) What does prohibition look like under those circumstances?

Reflecting on that question, ask yourself this: how many people will be killed in no-knock police raids trying to root out the black market in guns? Will they be mostly white or mostly black? (Notice that gun control laws have tended to be stricter in majority black areas rather than majority white areas. Both DC and Chicago, the battleground states for the 2nd Amendment claims, are disproportionately black.) How many of those killed by police will be kids? How many kids’ deaths will be prevented?

On reflection, I suspect that many gun control regimes and all possible paths to gun prohibtion are more likely to increase the number of people hurt and killed by guns.  So when we do finally start talking about gun control and gun prohibition, let’s be very, very careful.

Something must be done.

Prohibition is something. 

∴ ????

Also, let’s remember that the violent crime rate, including gun crimes, is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. That doesn’t make what happened today any easier to handle, but perhaps it will allow us to focus on what happened, and the people it happened to, instead of replaying Jon Stewart’s Monday night monologue. Something terrible has happened. It didn’t happen to you or I, so we have the ability to ask whether it could have been prevented. We should ask whether it could have been prevented. But we should also ask: at what cost? Then we should follow that calculation of lives lost and lives saved wherever it leads.

Craig Whitney’s July New York Times Op-Ed on the Aurora shooting is still apropos here:

Liberals should accept that the only realistic way to control gun violence is not by keeping guns out of the hands of as many Americans as possible, but by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree should not have them.

Read the whole thing. Whitney is a liberal gun apologist–which means he has a good sense of what kinds of regulation would actually be constitutional under DC v. Heller, and what sorts might be effective.

What should we say when we talk about guns?

When we start talking about guns, some people will say that they’re unnecessary and dangerous. Others will say that they’re a tool for self-defense and self-sufficiency. That’s usually where the debate rests, except that the 2nd Amendment privileges the second group. If we want to make progress, we can offer better reasons, reasons that will be superior precisely because they are responsive to the reasons of our interlocutors. That means honestly trying to find the overlap in what appears to be an incommensurable set of assumptions.

Here’s Dan Braman and Dan Kahan, in an article on how to have a better gun debate:

For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers. These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.

As a result, Braman and Kahan propose a “big trade”: those who oppose guns should offer to recognize and respect the rights of gun ownership, effectively normalizing it, in exchange for universal registration. By emphasizing the responsibility and civic spiritedness of most gun owners, Braman and Kahan believe that we can better reach an agreement what that responsibility entails.

For Braman and Kahan, this is an extension of their cultural cognition work, but I’d put it a little differently, in terms of the interaction between esteem and social norms: rather than depicting gun owners as dangerous hicks, we give them esteem in exchange for esteem-worthy performances of self-abnegation and sacrifice, like giving up assault weapons and semi-automatics. Since less than 0.004% of all guns are used on other human beings in any given year, we should acknowledge that most people’s guns are not the problem.

by Flickr user deepwarren

It’s tempting to stage a cultural showdown around guns, to line up a set of  statistics and international comparisons and arguments: i.e. that carrying a gun probably increases the likelihood that you will be shot and killed. Lots of resources already go into advertising this fact, along with others. From a public health perspective it makes perfect sense to discourage gun ownership, but so long as many Americans treat guns as a central part of their identities, such discouragement will only have limited impact. Research suggests that our prior beliefs on guns will have an significant impact on the way that we process new data on gun deaths. That’s more evident in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, where tragedy and group polarization rule, but very little cross-cutting bipartisan dialogue takes place.

In “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions,” Braman and Kahan offer evidence that risk perceptions are derivative of social norms and cultural-loaded meanings:

The risks that we face in our daily lives are far too vast in number and diverse in nature to be comprehended in their totality. Of all the potential hazards that compete for our attention, the ones most likely to penetrate our consciousness are the ones that comport with our norm-pervaded moral evaluations: it is easy to believe that ignoble activities are also physically dangerous, and worthy ones benign. Thus, “moral concern guides not just response to the risk but the basic faculty of [risk] perception” as well.

What this means is that how we process school shootings or firearm-related suicides will be largely dictated by our prior views on the social importance of guns. That’s why our responses differ so drastically: it’s not that some of us are dumb and some smart, some indifferent to suffering and some caring, but that we can only understand tragedy within a cultural framework, and that framework partially dictates which elements of the tragedy pop out as salient.

In particular, those concerned primarily with hierarchical forms of status and authority will relate to gun crimes differently from those egalitarians who abhor social statification, while those who favor individual autonomy will take up a different yet a third approach to evaluating and prioritizing risks than those who favor collective action. What Braman and Kahan show is that the facts and statistics that seem salient to us depend largely on where we fall on both the hierarchy-egalitarian axis and the individualism-solidarism axis.

Here, then, is the problem: most of the prohibition-type solutions are only going to receive support from those of us who are both egalitarian and in favor of collective action. This creates the potential for a coalition of interests between those who favor guns as a traditional prerogative of American citizenship, and those who see them as a symbol self-sufficiency and of man’s mastery of nature. You can’t simply eliminate those value profiles and risk-assessments from the electorate, and it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do. Instead, we should seek solutions that are more widely satisfying to traditionalists. Politicians understood this long ago and captured it in the canard that gun safety regulations should respect the rights of “hunters and sportsmen.”

But what kinds of policies does this respect entail?

I’ve already linked to two kinds of suggestions for gun control that seem like reasonable accommodations with the many civic-minded gun owners in the country: the federal legislation recommendations from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Op-Ed by Craig Whitney, “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate.”

To this, let me add the state and local initiatives suggested by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which are in many ways more important, such as better mental health reporting and ammunition controls and licensing. Many of these are things that need not be resolved nationally to be effective: for instance, California single-handedly improved ballistics recognition by requiring guns sold in the state to “micro-stamp” their serial numbers onto shell casings. That program should be expanded to other states.

A lot of the pushback I received last week was tied to the fact that places like Japan and Great Britain have had reasonable success with prohibitions. Certainly this is true, but it seems to ignore both that those places started off with a very different gun culture, and that they are geographic anomalies, islands of dense populations with a lot of ethnic homogeneity. We have 310,000,000 of the damned things, and we’ve had many failures over the years trying to curb that numbers’ growth. We should try something different.

(Always a good reminder: Timur Kuran’s and Cass Sunstein’s “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation.”)

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