Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Discourse, so far

Joan Peterson is a gun control advocate and board member for the anti-gun Brady campaign, and she has a blog. I've been talking gun laws there for a week or so, and with a few idiosyncrasies, she's clearly indicating a desire to discuss and understand the issue. Time will tell whether the desire is genuine, or, as we've seen from other gun-control bloggers, just a rhetorical attempt to frame the issue as reasonable Bradies against hardheaded, uncompromising gun owners.

One issue she has is a heavy hand with comment moderation. I'm skeptical of her blocking gunnies who've made their points aggressively (I don't know how aggressively, or whether I blame them; see below), but a bigger issue is her casually declining comments that she doesn't think add to the discussion. In recent posts about gun accidents, for example, I've linked to statistics showing that it's a tiny problem, and had those posts declined because she isn't interested in non-gun accidental deaths and never made any specific claims about their commonness.

Because of this, when Ms. Peterson asks gun owners to play 20 questions in the interest of common understanding, and says outright that she may quote the responses in her own rebuttals rather than approving the responses in whole, it makes me feel a lot better to put my own response out in the open:

1 - Do you believe that criminals and domestic abusers should be able to buy guns without background checks?

I have no problem with prohibiting gun ownership by convicted violent criminals. Background checks are covered below.

2 - What is your proposal for keeping guns away from criminals, domestic abusers, terrorists and dangerously mentally ill people?

I don't think it can be done short of a complete ban on guns, and that will only keep guns away from the less dedicated ones. All the other gun-control measures your organization advocates will fail to prevent access, just as our past century of gun control has. Background checks are childishly easy to circumvent (_everybody_ knows somebody with a clean record). As is true in most cases, the best we can do is hope to deter bad behavior by being good at reacting to it.

3 - Do you believe that a background check infringes on your constitutional right to "keep and bear arms"?

A background check by itself, no. But I'm not convinced they can be implemented without--as the current system does--seriously burdening the market, driving up prices and driving down accessibility, which we don't generally regard as acceptable where Constitutional rights are concerned.
Can you imagine an advocacy group dedicated to stamping out illegal use of expression (like libel and inciting riot) by pushing for background checks on books, which required all book sales to go through licensed dealers, banned the transfer of books by mail order (so that you can only buy online by having it shipped to your local licensed bookstore and paying them a transfer fee), and outlawing the interstate purchase of political and religious books (which, of course, are responsible for the greatest percentage of book deaths)?
This is made worse by the fact, again, that background checks don't and can't _work_. There will always, always be straw buyers.

4 - Do you believe that I and people with whom I work intend to ban your guns?

I've only been reading your blog for a few posts, so I don't know where you stand personally. But I own handguns, some of which are even (gasp!) semiautomatic, and the Brady Campaign has supported bans on them.
I believe that most casual gun control advocates don't want to ban _all_ guns, and are simply under the incorrect impression that guns are constantly getting deadlier, so we need to ban the new, ultra-deadly ones. But I also see (especially as a New Jersey resident) how every time the new gun control law inevitably fails to fix the problem, the proposed solution is always, always even more restrictions. Anybody who cares about a civil right would be a fool not to think about where that pattern is leading.
Great Britain shows us how far people who don't want to ban all guns can go, and they show little sign of being done restricting.

5 - If yes to #4, how do you think that could happen ( I mean the physical action)?

How do we enforce any ban? Confiscation can involve passive seizure of only the contraband that comes to police attention, or midnight SWAT raids. Both are unacceptable.

6 - What do you think are the "second amendment remedies" that the tea party GOP candidate for Senate in Nevada( Sharron Angle) has proposed?

I'm disturbed that so many people seem to think we've transcended history into permanent stability and freedom for all time, and that the American Revolution was a one-time deal that can never be legitimately repeated. It tends to be tied up in the equally disturbing attitude that voting is all the remedy we could ever need for any government abuse. I don't believe now is the time for revolution, and I hope that time doesn't come in my life. Revolutions are terrible, terrible affairs in which there's no guarantee of success, no guarantee that the new system will be better than the old, and however it turns out, lots of good people die. They're to be avoided whenever possible.
But when you have a government that routinely and casually ignores the legal restrictions on its power, and is constantly entrenching more and more of its excesses in ways that are difficult to dislodge through elections... Well, again, I think a person would be a fool not to look ahead to what might be necessary in the future if we keep going down that road. There are simply things worth fighting for.

7 - Do you believe in the notion that if you don't like what someone is doing or saying, second amendment remedies should be applied?

That's quite a broad question. It depends on whether and to what extent that person's actions harm me. Shoot somebody in a disagreement over a parking space? Obviously not. Shoot somebody in a disagreement over whether I should get on the train to be relocated to a government farm? Obviously yes. As with so many things in life, principle is a matter of drawing lines in the gray space between the extremes.
I can't come up with an example of a justified shooting over protected speech, but most reasonable states allow deadly force in response to credible threats of murder or serious assault.

8 - Do you believe it is O.K. to call people with whom you disagree liars and demeaning names?

I think it's usually preferable not to. But change the context for a moment. Let's say you're an LGBT rights advocate, and you come to yet another website about how Jesus hates teh gays. The most recent post is one more cookie-cutter attack: linking to a story about a man who molested a boy and implying that it's a black mark on gay people; pointing to statistics about a purported link between child sexual abuse and adult homosexuality; and advocating for invasive laws that interfere with gay Americans' rights to live as they please for the sake of protecting children and the family.
Would you cut some slack to the commenters if they weren't especially kind while making their rebuttals?

9 - If yes to #8, would you do it in a public place to the person's face?

It's simply a fact of participating in the internet: it tends to increase the jerk-factor a little or a lot.

10 - Do you believe that any gun law will take away your constitutional rights?

The question is a bit vague. Are you asking if I can imagine an unconstitutional gun law? Of course. At the very least, we have a concrete ruling that handgun bans and "safe storage" laws are unconstitutional. Are you asking if I can imagine a Constitutional gun law? Sure. Laws that punish negligent and malicious use of guns are fine. But by their nature, laws restricting acquisition and possession--because the mild ones are ineffective and the severe ones burden lawful conduct--tend not to pass the strict scrutiny test used to evaluate restrictions on Constitutionally protected behavior.

11 - Do you believe in current gun laws? Do you think they are being enforced? If not, explain.

Current gun control laws clearly don't work, because after a century of them we still have so many crimes committed with guns that you're saying we have a crucial, urgent need for more gun laws.
Current gun laws are also often nonsensical and pointless, like our 76-year-old federal ban on short-barreled rifles that prohibits me from shortening a rifle or putting a stock on a pistol under any circumstances (except with certain handguns grandfathered by name), but allows the manufacture of rifle-caliber pistols as long as a stock never goes on them unless a longer barrel is attached first. ... This is why any discussion of "common sense" gun laws must include fixing or eliminating the insensible ones we already have.
And living near Philadelphia definitely puts gun law enforcement in perspective. Even nonexistent gun laws are enforced against the law-abiding (Philly police don't like concealed-carry reciprocity, for example, so they have a habit of arresting and harassing out-of-state-permit holders and later dropping the charges), while actual violent criminals are very frequently released on plea bargains or early parole, or are simply left on the streets awaiting trial for months.
(I'm sensing an undercurrent to these questions, by the way. Do you include laws against assault with a deadly weapon in your mental "gun laws" category, or is your scope limited to laws that restrict private sale and possession?)

12 - Do you believe that all law-abiding citizens are careful with their guns and would never shoot anybody?

There's no such thing as "all X people always do Y". I generally trust my fellow citizens, and accept that in that atmosphere of trust some people will act irresponsibly or maliciously. It's a fundamental cost of living in a free society, and I think the proper response is to be prepared to deal with the irresponsible and malicious, not to erode the freedom and trust in hopes of restraining the problem people in advance.

13 - Do you believe that people who commit suicide with a gun should be included in the gun statistics?

I don't think it matters, as long as we're defining our terms clearly. Suicide with a gun is deadly serious, though, not a "cry for help", and I think it's very poor reasoning to talk about "gun suicides" as though eliminating the guns would have prevented those deaths. Japan is absolute proof that you don't get a low suicide rate by removing guns. You can include it all you want, but I don't see a compelling public policy interest in that half of our "gun deaths".

14 - Do you believe that accidental gun deaths should "count" in the total numbers?

Again, sure. And we don't even have to worry so much about defining our terms because, as previously discussed, it's a drop in the bucket. I can understand that you want to focus on gun accidents because that's your area of interest. But it might help you to understand that the relative rarity of accidental gun deaths is why most other people aren't reacting with the same concern you are.

15 - Do you believe that sometimes guns, in careless use or an accident, can shoot a bullet without the owner or holder of the gun pulling the trigger?

In very, very rare cases, always involving old gun designs and negligence. A hundred-year-old single action revolver design can go off if it's improperly loaded and then dropped on its hammer. A 1970-series or earlier Model 1911 pistol _may_ discharge if it's dropped more than ten feet and hits a hard surface barrel-first. I'm at a loss for other examples off the top of my head. The key here is that guns only "go off" through intent or negligence. A gun left properly holstered is a danger to nobody, and arguments that we need to restrict concealed carry to prevent accidental deaths hold precisely no water.

16 - Do you believe that 30,000 gun deaths a year is too many?

I believe one car death a year is too many. But I accept the 45,000 per year that we have, because the freedom automobiles give us outweighs the cost. Guns are involved in fewer deaths, are a Constitutional right, and the idea that eliminating the guns would prevent the 30,000 annual homicides and suicides is much more tenuous, so I'm much less likely to accept restrictions on them. The universal belief that it's "too many" deaths has a very limited bearing on the discussion, and is often just brought up as a rhetorical tactic intended to put the gun-rights advocate in a difficult or embarrassing position.

17 - How will you help to prevent more shootings in this country?

I'd end the "war on drugs", stop locking people up for nonviolent procedural violations, and use the enormous resulting prison space and justice system resources to catch, convict, and lock up actual violent criminals for a long, long time in prisons remote from their criminal networks.
Between eliminating organized crime's main source of profit and actually punishing _misuse_ of guns rather than burdening lawful possession, I expect a significantly lower rate of deadly violence in general, including shootings. It can't possibly be a worse experiment than continuing the hundred-year failure of gun control.

18 - Do you believe the articles that I have posted about actual shootings or do you think I am making them up or that human interest stories about events that have happened should not count when I blog about gun injuries and deaths?

I don't believe you're making them up. I also understand that humans are bad at instinctively assessing actual risks, and tend to give undue weight to vivid stories, which often mislead us about where the real danger is (a semirelated example is how many people think of rape in terms of assault by strangers, when the overwhelming majority of rapes are actually committed by acquaintances; this can have terrible effects on how we teach women to protect themselves, and on how courts treat rape victims.)

19 - There has been some discussion of the role of the ATF here. Do you believe the ATF wants your guns and wants to harass you personally? If so, provide examples ( some have written a few that need to be further examined).

Me in particular? I'm pretty sure I'm off their radar. But as with any alphabet-soup agency, I'm very concerned about how much practical power they've been delegated, and how transparent and accountable they are.

20 - Will you continue a reasonable discussion towards an end that might lead somewhere or is this an exercise in futility?

I promise I'll do my best not to stomp off in a petulant snit. But these discussions often get pointless and draining really quickly, as it becomes clear that both sides have irreconcilably different perspectives on whether and when violence is justified, on the proper relationship between government and the people, and on government's practical ability to solve problems deeply entrenched in human nature. I intend to continue discussion until it gets too frustrating to keep up, or too frustrating to keep up civilly.

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