Well, if they didn’t have the guns…

Just as predictable as the question about whether we need stronger gun controls follows after a public shooting spree, there is the predictable response from conservatives that guns don't kill people, evil/crazy/bad people kill people, so stop with gun control. (See John's earlier link to the Onion article on this point).  Here's Thomas Sowell, over at National Review Online:

Do countries with strong gun-control laws have lower murder rates? Only if you cherry-pick the data…. Britain is a country with stronger gun-control laws and lower murder rates than the United States. But Mexico, Russia, and Brazil are also countries with stronger gun-control laws than the United States — and their murder rates are much higher than ours….

This is the old bait-and-switch, isn't it?  (Otherwise known as red herring)  The question about gun control laws, at least under these circumstances, is whether it's a good idea to have assault weapons available, as with them, public shooting sprees are very, very destructive.  It's not about whether the murder rate will go down.  If you want to murder someone, you'll likely do it with a gun or without.  But if you want to go on a spree of violence, you'll do that with a gun or without, too.  The point of the question is that with the latter, the with the gun option, the public spree of violence kills more people.  Sowell's point about homicide is just beside the point.  Well, at least he's not running the if there were more people with guns, this wouldn't happen line (see, John Lott for that one).

13 thoughts on “Well, if they didn’t have the guns…”

  1. Well, the Red Herring is yours, no?  The line here is the usual misdirection about how it's so easy to wreak havoc if one has a weapon of mass destruction available.  So, then by the same logic, anything capable of causing mass destruction should be banned along with Asssult Weapon Look-alikes.  For example, a can of gasoline and a lighter tossed into a crowded theater would be far more destructive than an Assault look-alike, and yet there is no talk of banning gasoline.  We would need to look at the potential after all, not at the facts or history. 

  2. Josh, please.  Next time someone brings a big can of gasoline into a mall and blows up 10, please come back and comment.  Otherwise, don't pretend you know what you're doing.

  3. Howdy – referred here by John; wasn't going to comment, but I'll bite. So, to avoid any switching of baits, lets restrict the discussion only to mass killings, and assault weapons' effects thereupon. With such a narrow scope, though, it becomes obvious that this very specific sort of incident is statistically insignificant in every way – in terms of number of people killed, number of people perpetrating, number and type of guns involved. The only reason this would ever result in legislation is because of a thoroughly understandable, but functionally irrelevant, emotional reaction to Need to Do Something. Yes, if assault weapons didn't exist, mass murderers would have to find different and likely less effective means for their end. But Josh's point stands: there are a LOT of things that should be banned if our only criteria for it is "if someone decides to use this maliciously, will it hurt a lot of people?". The TX bell tower shenanigans would already have resulted in a ban of bolt-action hunting rifles… not to mention, regarding the Lott link, that particular massacre was reduced in severity precisely because a number of armed civilians helped return fire. A quick googling shows a few other incidents where armed civilians ended an active shooter scenario. It's impossible to say which *could* have otherwise been a mass murder, but I'm not convinced it's worth dismissing out-of-hand.


    Sowell does not appear to like international comparisons because, it would seem, they so often contradict his positions. His general pattern is to isolate a single data point, argue that due to that data point the foreign nation cannot be compared to the U.S., or argue that there are outliers on that data point that undermine any comparison. So it matters only that Mexico has "strong" gun control laws, not that it lacks the capacity to enforce those laws, suffers from institutional corruption, and that a significant part of the nation is controlled by drug cartels. It only matters that Switzerland has high rates of gun ownership, not its culture of responsible ownership, the manner in which it regulates guns, the ratio of long guns to hand guns….
    On the other hand, when he finds a single data point that supports your preconceptions, it seems that correlation and causation become one and the same. Gun control passes in the U.K. with a subsequent rise in gun crime? That must mean that the gun control law disarmed law-abiding citizens and let the criminal element run wild – and apparently <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jul/19/murder-rate-falls-crime-figures">you need never revisit the data</a>.
    I don't find the argument, "It's rare, so we don't need to worry about it," to be compelling. It may in face be possible to identify a means by which a rare atrocity can be prevented, with a costs and benefits weighing significantly in favor of implementing the preventative measure. There are certain chemicals that are difficult for you or I to obtain, because a tiny number of people might use them to build bombs or make drugs but for the most part the impact of those regulations on our day-to-day lives is invisible. The fact that it is theoretically possible for a future Tim McVeigh to build a nuclear weapon does not mean it's pointless to impede his much more plausible construction of a fertilizer bomb.

  5. mk16:  Everything hangs on the question: what are we out to prevent with the regulations?  If the answer is murder generally, then Sowell's argument makes sense.  But that's not the case with the responses to shooting sprees like this.  So Sowell's made a switch.  Your point is that it's a reasonable switch — to ask whether it's worth it to prevent anomalous events like a movie-theater mass shooting.  Note that this is no longer Sowell's argument.  He's acting as though the move seals the deal with both answers.  It doesn't. 
    Aaron: I think it's worthwhile to acknowledge that gun restrictions by themselves don't reduce gun crime.  Chicago is still rife with gun violence, and it's got very strict gun laws.  The trouble is that there have to be other factors in place for the gun regulations to be effective, and poverty is a pretty good predictor of failure on those fronts (and hence the problems Sowell notes with Mexico and Brazil).

  6. Wait – Sowell's switch isn't to "should we prevent mass shootings at all?" it's to "should we prevent mass shootings by restricting access to guns?". Obviously, as your post points out, looking at the effects of gun restriction on murder *in general* does nothing to answer this question. So, my point was to constrain the conversation to exactly that latter question; it was not to suggest that mass shootings can't/shouldn't be prevented. Further, my point was that constraining the conversation in such a way is an extremely unwise thing to do in the first place: it is an explicit decision to address symptoms instead of causes. <br /><br />
    I don't think we should do nothing about this sort of thing. I also, however, don't think events like this are common enough to warrant limiting everyone's access to assault weapons (which, statistically, are only a serious threat during such incidents). There are much simpler preventive solutions, and much more important root causes. <br /><br />
    The point you submit to Aaron is relevant. If addressing the reasons for violence has proven successful, and limiting access to firearms has proven unsuccessful, why would you waste time and effort doing both?

  7. Hey Scott, et al.,

    One minor empirical point about Chicago.  I live here.  There are several shootings a day despite our strict gun laws.  Those laws of course are meaningless if people can purchase guns legally elsewhere and sell them, give them, lose them, etc., to people in Chicago.  And we should also include the victims of military-style assualt or high-capacity magazine firearms on the streets of Chicago, LA, etc. and not just the spree-type killings that MK16 correctly notes are rare.

  8. Hi John,
    The point's well-taken about Chicago, and it is part of a general line of thought — namely, that gun control can't work unless it's coupled with other social programs and consistent national gun control.
    Look, if Sowell's looking at mass shootings, then why is he talking about murder rates?  If we are having a wider conversation, then, sure, it's relevant.  But it's hasty to say that because gun control needs other factors in place to be effective that it's not worth pursuing. 

  9. I agree with you re: Sowell. I've said so explicitly… I don't get why that's still a point of contention. As for the wider conversation, I suppose I could have just excluded the last paragraph of my last post; I was following *your* lead as written to Aaron.
    We have, in fact, pursued gun control, and as you stated it only doesn't work where OTHER factors are at play. So I'm not sure why we would interpret the recent Aurora incident to indicate a need for more/stricter firearm control.

  10. mk,
    A quick point about logic-chopping.  Just because I point out that Sowell's argument has a fallacy, it doesn't mean  that what he's saying is false or that the contrary to what he says is true. 

  11. That would be the fallacy fallacy: the fallacy of thinking fallacious arguments to have false conclusions by that very fact.

  12. Speaking of Chicago (somewhat off-topic but on topic with logical fallacies), I recently learned that a number of news services reported that Chicago's homicide rate was higher than Kabul's. (Google it, and you'll find it easily). The HuffPo linked to an article[1], titled "Wild West in Chicago: City officials fight back as murder rate outstrips N.Y., L.A. – even Kabul,"  with the claim that "while 144 Americans have died in Afghanistan in 2012, a whopping 228 Chicago residents have been killed."
    I thought this was rather humorous. The problem with the statement is that Americans aren't the only ones that count when you look at the homicide rate of a place. This is especially ironic since Americans are not even native to the country and there are far fewer Americans than Afghans in Afghanistan. I'm guessing, once you add the number of murdered Afghans as well as those of any other nationality, the homicide rate will be higher than Chicago's.
    (There's an additional point of whether one should look at the number of homicides per 100,000 people not just the raw count, as is usually done in statistical accounts, but I'll consider that a separate issue.)
    [1] http://www.thedaily.com/page/2012/06/15/061512-news-chicago-murders-knowles-1-3/

  13. i think you a word. "truth is"?
    anyway, i'm not sure which point you think i'm confusing with its argument. i suspected you may have misrepresented Sowell's argument in one of your comments, and attempted to clarify ("should we prevent" vs. "should we restrict"), but from the start i've taken at face value your characterization of his actual point – from the first paragraph, "guns don't kill people, so stop gun control". i haven't even read the linked writing to verify this point, because it's irrelevant to both your criticism of his argument and to anything i was trying to say concerning your post.
    now, there may be some problem with my understanding of your point, as it's only implied in this post and i'd brought over a number of possibly incorrect assumptions from my previous conversation with John. but i've never even mentioned the way you conveyed your point, i.e. your "argument", so i'm not entirely sure how i appear to have confused the two.
    …we're pretty deep in the rabbit hole now, and i don't suspect you're interested in going any further. if you could, however, explain to me exactly how i seem to have utilized a "fallacy fallacy", it may help me clarify my writing in future conversations. you've misrepresented my comments in each of your responses, so i'm left thinking i must have been writing pretty unclearly.

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