Columbine. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Tuscon. Newtown. What they all have in common, besides being the sites of horrific massacres, is that the crimes were carried out by mentally disturbed gunmen. Whenever an unbalanced individual wants to make a big statement to get the world’s attention, it seems that the gun is the instrument of choice to deliver the message. And aside from being male, the one thing that nearly all mass shooters have in common is that they are mentally and/or emotionally disturbed. But it’s not just the shooters who display bats in the belfry; it’s also a large segment of the American public in reacting to these bloodbaths.
Shortly after the carnage at Sandy Hook, as after any and every mass shooting, the gun lobby began rhapsodizing about how wonderful guns are, and gun sales began soaring, thanks in large part to the NRA’s campaign of paranoia — not about other armed crazies, but about the government. Since President Obama, they declared, wants to “take away your guns”, the thing to do is acquire more of them for him to take away. And millions of gunsters have bought into this transparent marketing ploy. Are these the actions of a sane society?
One of them was Larry Ward, president of Political Media, Inc., who commented:
“The Obama administration has shown that it is more than willing to trample the Constitution to impose its dictates upon the American people. If the American people don’t fight back now, Obama will do to the Second Amendment what he has already done to the First with Obamacare; gut it without a moment’s thought to our basic constitutional rights.”
If that’s not loony enough for you, try this. Ward is chairman of Gun Appreciation Day, as if guns weren’t already appreciated more than enough. As discussed in the post Of Guns and Glamor, American pop culture is saturated with the glorification if not downright deification of the almighty gun, which is commonly portrayed as the first, best and/or only solution to any obstacle that blocks your path. Americans don’t just love their guns; they worship their guns, they obsess over their guns, they eat, breathe, and fuck their guns. Are these the sentiments of a mentally balanced society?
Gun Appreciation Day (on which 5 people were injured in 3 accidental shootings) was held on January 19, in proximity to Obama’s second inauguration and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s a triple nose thumbing: not only was Dr. King murdered with one of their precious toys, but that Second Amendment they champion as “the one that makes all the others possible” was actually inserted into the Constitution largely to defend the institution of slavery. Yet today the gun culture passionately believes the Second Amendment to be the very embodiment of liberty, and hold gun ownership itself as being synonymous with liberty. And the president, they maintain, is an enemy to that liberty, a tyrannical dictator who’s actually been (horrors) issuing executive orders lately. Never mind that he’s issued fewer executive orders than any president in the past century. Never mind that the executive orders dealing with firearms are quite sensible and don’t involve “taking away your guns”. We mustn’t let the facts get in our way, or we might succumb to sanity.
The running narrative is to portray “liberals” as being enemies of the Constitution because they tend to support firearm regulations. Never mind that the vast majority of NRA members ( the vast majority of whom are anything but “liberal” ) also support some form of restrictions on guns. Never mind that an icon many of them devoutly revere was a vocal proponent of “gun control”. There’s nothing more important than scoring cheap political points, even if it means exploiting the violent deaths of school children. Jesus H. Christ tap-dancing on a cracker, what is wrong with these people? It certainly isn’t a surfeit of sanity.
The wingnut blogosphere has been abuzz with many rumors and accusations about the Newtown slaughter. For one thing, in rushing to the defense of their beloved assault weapons, gunsters have circulated the claim that the Sandy Hook killer actually used only handguns. It’s been established that the primary weapon was a rifle, but that hardly can be expected to stop the rumors. The big advantage of insanity is that when reality doesn’t fit your worldview, you can just switch to a different reality.
But that wasn’t the nuttiest rumor by any means. Foremost among them is the accusation that the whole thing was just staged, and the grieving parents of the deceased children were in fact hired actors. Yep, a lot of people out there believe that not only the Obama administration and the librulmedia, but also all the students, teachers and parents of Sandy Hook and indeed the entire Newtown community, and even the friends and relatives of the victims from other communities are all involved in a big conspiracy to portray firearms as (heaven forbid) destructive. Does this bear any resemblance whatsoever to a sane thought process?
It’s also vital, of course, for gunsters to try to minimize the horrors of a gun tragedy by drawing irrelevant and pointless comparisons. Many of them absolutely must seize the occasion to remind you that they also consider abortion to be murder just in case you forgot and if you did how dare you. They don’t seem to realize that they’re advocating the same measure for abortion — i.e. government prohibition — that they insist is ineffective for gun violence. It’s also standard operating procedure to point out that more people are killed by automobiles than guns so why don’t we talk about banning automobiles heh heh heh. Never mind that automobiles serve a useful purpose besides killing people, which generally results from improper use, whereas guns are designed to kill, and death is a product of their intended purpose; or that strict “automobile control” has been a fact of life for generations.
And hey, people also can kill with hammers and baseball bats, so how about outlawing them, nyuk nyuk nyuk. Never mind that guns kill at least 20 times as often as all blunt objects combined — all of which, need we add, are designed for a more constructive use. And oh yes, we mustn’t forget knives, which are certainly a significant assault weapon. And presto, at about the same time as the Newtown massacre, a deranged man in China went on a rampage with a knife and wounded 22 school children. So there — see what happens when people don’t have guns?
Now in case you’re really confused here about the difference between the China episode and the Connecticut episode, here’s a little visual aid that might come in handy:
STABBING VICTIM IN CHINA
SHOOTING VICTIM IN CONNECTICUT
You might want to study these two pictures carefully to see if you can spot the difference. You could be tested on it one of these days.
Of course, the gunsters may have picked on China because that country has had its own share of attacks on school students — 10 of them in less than 3 years, all carried out with sharp or blunt instruments. Researchers are trying to sort out the factors that have prompted this sudden rash of violence, but they could save themselves a lot of trouble by just consulting the American Gun Worshiping Cult , which has it all figured out: it’s all because the Chinese can’t access guns as easily as candy. Take away people’s guns, and they’ll turn violent by other means, so you might as well let ‘em have guns, eh?
There are at least a couple of little problems with this line of “reasoning”. First, China’s strict firearms code goes back many years, to long before this spate of school attacks that started in 2010. Second, these 10 attacks have produced a total of 25 deaths. The shooter in Connecticut singlehandedly bested China’s collective score in a matter of minutes. To juxtapose these two recent tragedies in order to make the case that the American system of arms for all is preferable to the Chinese system of strict regulation is to imply that it’s better to have 20 dead kids than 22 wounded ones. Is this really the preference of people who have a grip on their mental faculties?
It also has become quite trendy in the wake of these tragedies for gunsters to defend the object of their infatuation by insisting that a gun is “just a tool”. Really? Hammers, toothbrushes and can openers are tools. But do hammer aficionados go out and swing their tools just for fun? Do toothbrush enthusiasts salivate over the sleekest, sexiest models of oral hygiene implements at trade shows? Are there racks and racks of slick magazines at your local bookstore glorifying can openers? Are there hundreds of online forums on which devotees can compare corkscrews and discuss how they take theirs out into the woods and exercise them for sport? Actually, it would make more sense to lavish that kind of attention on such objects, because tools are things that enhance the quality of life. Guns, on the other hand, destroy and disrupt life — by using them for the very purpose for which they’re intended. Nor does it work to justify the fawning adulation by protesting that they’re needed for protection. Burglar alarms, insurance policies and condoms also afford protection. But does any of them boast the kind of cult following that deadly weapons do? The word tool just doesn’t seem to apply to guns. As for many gun owners — well, you be the judge.
I’ve heard plenty from them. Here are, by far, the most widely read and commented upon posts on this blog : (1) The Myth of Hitler’s Gun Ban; (2) Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably; (3) Make My Day: Mention Gun Defense “Statistics”; and (4) The Myth of Constitutional “Gun Rights” ; a Second Look at the Second Amendment. Noticing a pattern here? A large percentage of the readers of these posts have been not so much readers as reactors; they’ve been gun addicts who are upset because I have questioned their dogma. Consequently, they’ve written to inform me that the Second Amendment was written so that citizens could violently overthrow the officials they’ve elected themselves, and that abortion and the “outlawing” of school prayer are responsible for all the nation’s ills, and that Hitler never massacred anyone, and that the U.S. has been taken over by a coalition of atheists, vegetarians, pagans, environmentalists and Muslims. No word yet on whether the extraterrestrial lizard people are also involved.
They’ve called me a “brainwashed liberal”, an “asshole”, an “idiot”, “one bloody walking red fucking herring” (I’m still trying to get a good visual on that one) and “a brain dead gun-grabbing neo-Nazi liberal”. All because I set the record straight by debunking a myth about Hitler — that’s right, not about guns, but about Hitler. It’s still one of their cherished beliefs, though, and anyone who challenges any part of the Gun Gospel is obviously a commie/ traitor/ librul. Heaven knows what they would have said if I’d tried to promote some ideology of my own that conflicts with theirs (as these folks love to accuse me of doing, with no substantiation whatsoever).
I even heard from Alex Jones. Yes, Alex New World Order Jones, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. And what did he have to say to me?
“I have never witnessed a more pompous or self absorbed and self righteous individual in my life. You know everything and how everyone should live and what they should believe. Right? Why even bother with a blog like this when you have no room in your inflated head for an honest debate?”
I am intrigued by the possibility that someone who, like me, blogs anonymously to keep himself out of the limelight could be regarded as “pompous”, “self-absorbed” or “self-righteous”. It’s not an impossible scenario, and I’d love to hear the details. Unfortunately, the venerable Mr. Jones didn’t leave a clue as to what led him to that conclusion, or why he believes, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary — even in the comments on the very post he was commenting on, no less — that I leave no room for “honest debate”. But in any case, if I received that kind of sliming from him, I must really be doing something right.
A few days later, Jones appeared on MSNBC as a guest of Piers Morgan, the British media personality whom he’s been trying to get deported because he doesn’t support Jones’ radical interpretation of the Second Amendment (honest debate, all the way). I defy you to watch this “interview” and tell me that these disjointed, spittle-flecked rantings are the product of a healthily functioning brain.
But there are many others like him out there. Indeed, there are many who look up to Jones as a guru, a sage, a prophet. They believe the Obama administration is the new Nazi regime, and that someone would be doing the world a favor by knocking him off. (Perhaps they just feel threatened because a couple of the president’s nefarious executive orders target mental illness.) They fancy themselves the equivalent of the patriots who fought the American Revolution, and are itching to turn their own weapons on anyone who is connected with the big bad guvmint.
War may be an effective metaphor, but for the gun culture, it isn’t just metaphor, but literal reality. Many of its constituents are incapable of expressing ideological differences or complaints about official policy in any but the most extreme, vitriolic, polarized, absolute, oversimplified, dire, overblown and violent of terms. Their worldview admits no other option except us-against-them, or more accurately me-against-them, and they have the compulsive conviction that “them” must be stopped from whatever they’re doing, and even destroyed, in order to save the universe. It’s paranoid schizophrenia at its starkest, and it illustrates why many of them should hardly be allowed to handle a loaded question, much less a loaded weapon.
In a way, it’s fitting that they view their imagined oppression in terms of war, since war itself, with its heavy concentrations of gunnery, is perhaps the ultimate madness: not only does it attempt, as expressed by a popular slogan, to establish who is right by determining who is left, but in a sense it attempts to establish who is more civilized by determining who can behave more barbarically. (For a wickedly satirical take on the war-as-madness conceit, see Philippe de Broca’s 1966 film King Of Hearts.)
I don’t mean to suggest that all gun owners are delusional or that military personnel who use guns as part of their job are playing with a depleted deck; the latter, after all, have a great deal of discipline and at least some realistic context guiding their actions. I don’t know the psychological profile of the “average” combat recruit – I suspect it’s rather more sound than that of the “average “civilian, since the soldier has to pass through a certain amount of screening and filtering, whereas most Americans become citizens just by being born. Additionally, the typical soldier, unlike the typical gun fanatic, is drawn to take up arms by motives more noble than just a love of the hardware and a hatred for the government. But however sound the psyche going into combat, it stands a perilous chance of being severely and permanently impaired by the time it comes out – about one in five combatants who return from Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Warfare may not succeed in converting many of its participants into the kind of outright madmen who made the war a necessity in the first place, but it does its best.
It may not be fair to say that Wayne LaPierre and company want to turn the country into one big war zone. But they are turning it into one big armed psych ward. And how much difference is there?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the NRA and the gun lobby have profited immensely from the most recent school massacre du jour. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that they always profit immensely from mass shootings. And you’re probably familiar with the fact that part of their strategy involves whipping up hysteria in their constituents about how President Obama (or fill in the Democrat of your choice) wants to “take away your guns”. What you may not realize, however, is that during the past election season while they were publicly demonizing the president for his supposed hostility to supposed “Second Amendment rights”, they were privately rooting for his reelection so they could ratchet up the paranoia and the profits even more. Nice work if you can get it.
You’ve probably heard about Wayne LaPierre and others declaring that the solution to gun violence is… well, a hair of the dog, natch. (Actually, they’re likely to insist that “gun violence” is merely a semantic contrivance of the “gun control” advocates — that “there is no such thing as gun violence, only violence committed with a gun”. You just can’t make up this kind of stuff.) They have an ample supply of cutesy slogans to promote their panacea, but their primary mantra is “more guns, less crime” — which is even the title of a popular book by soundly discredited gun guru John Lott. This slogan expresses their belief (or at least the belief they want their clientele to maintain) that guns are used more often for defense than for crime.
Even if that were perfectly true, employing it as an excuse to put more guns into circulation is rather like saying we should start more house fires because more people will collect insurance than will die. But there’s no evidence their premise is correct; in fact, the evidence strongly suggests that the reverse is true. The best they can come up with is statistics that seem to show a correlation in certain localities between stricter gun laws and higher crime and/or looser gun laws and lower crime. (In reality, such correlations aren’t nearly as clear-cut as they assume; and in any case, correlation is not the same as causality. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Gunsters often tout “studies” (i.e., surveys) that supposedly prove that there are hundreds of thousands, or even a few million, defensive guns uses (DGUs) every year. But not even all of these surveys support the “more guns, less crime” motif. Two of the best known figures, both projected by the Dept. Of Justice, are 108,000 and 65,000 DGUs. Both of which fall far short of the documented 400,000-plus crimes committed with a gun annually. No wonder the gun culture has such a love affair with Dr. Kleck, who posits 2.5 million. He calculated this by interviewing just 222 individuals. Furthermore, as stated by the Virginia Center for Public Safety:
Kleck’s Interviewers do not appear to have questioned a random individual at a given telephone number, but rather asked to speak to the male head of the household. Males from the South and West were oversampled. The results imply that many hundreds of thousands of murders should have been occurring when a private gun was not available for protection. Yet guns are rarely carried, less than a third of adult Americans personally own guns, and only 27,000 homicides occurred in 1992.”
I’ve discussed some of the problems with these surveys in two previous posts, Make My Day: Mention Gun Defense Statistics and Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably. Since then, I’ve heard from a great many gunsters who really, desperately want my analysis to be wrong. Which is not surprising; if we burst the bubble of “more guns, less crime”, the very foundation of the gun culture starts collapsing. Some of them are obsessed with trying to establish that I’m a “liberal”, which one gathers would instantaneously vaporize all the inconvenient facts. But not one of them has been able to provide any evidence that my “theory” about the true number of DGUs (as if I actually had one) is mistaken. Except for saying something like “I’ve had 27 DGUs of my own, and none were reported by the media”. But such anecdotes, even if perfectly true, hardly contradict anything I’ve said. The gun culture insists upon the existence of a legendary beast of titanic proportions, but the only evidence is the most miniscule of footprints.
Potential vs. Probable
Mostly, these folks just argue in a circle: “The numbers produced by the surveys must be accurate because there are surveys that produce them”; or “I believe these figures are right because they seem reasonable to me.” They also tend to confuse potential with probability. Their reasoning is that if we know the number of gun owners in the U.S. and the number of annual crimes committed, then we can make an educated guess about the probable number of DGUs. Not so. There are many other factors that can play a role. Many of these factors we do not know; some, indeed we probably will never know. But two of the most obvious are: (1) The criminals usually have the element of surprise on their side, and (2) Few gun owners are armed at all times. A third factor that’s not so obvious, but which nonetheless has the potential for a significant impact is that humans have a documented tendency to compensate for an added safety measure (e.g., a gun) by indulging in riskier behavior, so the net level of danger remains the same. Which might help explain why some alleged DGUs, on closer inspection, turn out to be aggressive rather than defensive.
Mind you, these are just some of the major factors. And even a number of very minor factors can make an enormous difference in the final product. Which might help explain how Kleck’s 222 interviewees mutated into 2.5 million. It’s called the butterfly effect. Look it up. Or see the movie.
The Hawthorne-Rambo Effect?
The overriding fatal flaw of those DGU surveys is that, contrary to what they purport, they really don’t even attempt to determine how many DGUs really occur. Instead, they attempt to determine how often participants say they occur. And they obviously have difficulty succeeding even at that task, as evidenced by the extremely wide range of results. Gallup, for instance, conducted a poll in 1991 in which it concluded that the annual DGU count was just under 800,000. Two years later, the organization conducted another poll on the subject, and came up with a total more than twice that high! And we’re really expected to take such estimates seriously? If so, which one?
Dr. Kleck and others poo-poo the notion that interviewees in these studies might have been, um, less than truthful. While I won’t go so far as to say that they outright lied — well, at least not all of them — it’s clear that their responses are grossly distorted. And we don’t have to cast about a great deal for a scientific explanation. It might be a variation of the experimenter effect, epistemic feedback, the subject-expectancy effect and/or the Hawthorne effect — all of which involve the researcher somehow influencing the subject’s response. In addition, this particular topic of inquiry invites the subject to regale the researchers with tales of his derring-do, which openly invites embellishment, whether deliberate or inadvertent. (See Prof. Hemenway’s commentary for more factors of distortion.)
In preparing to write the previous posts, I scoured several gun-friendly websites that attempt to do their own tracking of defensive gun use, inviting their followers who’ve experienced one to submit their accounts. Among others, I combed through more than 50 years of records compiled by the NRA. But none of these sources ever racked up a tally of more than a few hundred per year. Why the gargantuan discrepancy between these totals and those supplied by the scientific surveys? The likely explanation lies in the difference in how the data are collected. In the surveys, researchers contact individuals directly and put them on the spot to deliver narratives of their heroism. The tracking websites maintained by gun communities, however, put out a general call; and perhaps only those individuals who’ve had a genuine experience are likely to respond. I’d also submit that perhaps these individuals feel bound by some unwritten code of honor to be truthful and accurate when dealing with an organization they belong to and/or respect. Moreover, they might fear, and perhaps rightly so, that their narratives will be subject to corroboration.
Virtually all of these latter incidents also were reported in the media. This, of course, does not prove that all DGUs that occur appear in the media, nor even that most of them do. But it does make you wonder why, if these (as often alleged) are only the tip of the iceberg, can’t millions of gun owners cough up more personal accounts to put on these websites and keep the public better informed about them. In any event, whether or not most DGUs really are covered by the media, most — are at least a very large percentage — are newsworthy; i.e., they would be reported in the news given the right circumstances. The less newsworthy such an event is, the less likely it is to be a bona fide defensive gun use. The media love this kind of story, and they’ll seldom just ignore it if it comes to their attention. And a great many genuine DGUs are difficult to keep secret even if one wanted to. Bear in mind that it’s irresponsible of the defender not to report the encounter to police, given that there’s a criminal running around who might attempt the same crime on someone else with tragic results. Of course, there is sometimes good reason why the alleged defender might keep the episode under his hat: he might, for example, be in possession of a firearm in violation of the law. But isn’t that all the more reason to question the defensive nature of the “defense”?
It’s particularly difficult to hush up those incidents in which a gun is fired; and doubly, triply, quadruply so for those instances in which the assailant is killed or wounded. For one thing, concealment itself would be a serious criminal offense. With the latter group, you can be virtually assured that such a sensationalist episode will make the news.
And here is where those surveys actually might be of some value. According to Kleck, 8 percent of the defenders wound or kill their assailants. This figure is certainly too low, given Kleck’s extremely loose standards for what constitutes a DGU. But even so, 8 percent of 2.5 million would mean it happens about 200,000 times per year. And yet only about one in 400 of these is reported in the news? Seriously? The National Crime Victimization Survey says it happens 3 percent of the time out of 108,000 DGUs per year. That’s 3240 in which the offender is wounded if not killed. And yet fewer than one in six is deemed newsworthy? Get real. One might argue that the media would have neither the capacity nor the interest to cover 200,000 such incidents per year. Perhaps not. But they would definitely have both the capacity and the interest to report 3240.
The most comprehensive listing of DGUs I’ve found is at keepandbeararms.com. Looking at the 75 most recent incidents listed (which covers a period of about 2 months), I see that, as best I can determine, there were 22 offenders killed, 38 merely wounded, and 29 were neither — some incidents involved more than one assailant. (And by the way, these incidents include “Man pulls gun on rowdy, line-cutting Black Friday shopper” and “Woman pulls gun on man who exposed himself at lake”. Very defensive, no? Note also that at least one of the stories is listed twice, and at least one actually details a case of unarmed self-defense — the defender had guns on hand but chose not to use them. How many other “DGUs” could be prevented if more people used their heads instead of their trigger fingers?) If these proportions are typical — and further research would be needed to declare that they are — then we could conclude that attackers wounded in a DGU die more than a third of the time. (In fact, this is quite consistent with a larger sample I examined in a previous post.) So if the NCVS is correct, then at least one percent of DGUs should involve the death of the suspect — which would amount to more than 1000 per year. But FBI statistics confirm that this only happens no more than about 300 times. Therefore, it seems that NCVS estimates are inflated by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, and thus the actual sum, by its own standards, should be about 25,000 to 30,000 DGUs per year. But bear in mind that this includes an unknown number of false positives. The Kleck survey would yield nearly 75,000 deaths, which would suggest it’s inflated by more than 250 to 1, which works out to fewer than 10,000 annual DGUs.
In fine, there is substantial proof of only a few hundred DGUs per year, and even inferential evidence of no more than a few thousand. The surveys that profess to demonstrate far in excess of that are, to say the least, highly unreliable. Crimes committed with a gun almost certainly outnumber gun defenses, probably by a large factor. And it’s staggeringly naive at best to propose that the remedy for gun violence (or whatever euphemistic circumlocution you choose to apply) is even more guns.
(NOTE: This post was revised on 1/7/13 to correct a couple of minor errors and insert a new paragraph of further explanation.)