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Actually, empirical evidence suggests a sure fire way to dramatically lower gun homicides: repeal drug laws

Sticking my umbrella up to try to deflect the tsunami of specious, beside-the-point, hiding-the-cultural-imperialism-ball, insult-to-reason uses of empirical evidence on violence & gun control (emanating from those on both sides of the debate), I offered a couple of feeble blog posts (here and here) urging more thoughtful, grounded arguments that are mindful both of the limits of our knowledge and our duty, as citizens of a liberal democracy, to justify our policy positions on grounds free of the impulse to use law as an expressive weapon for denigrating cultural styles that differ from our own.

I'm not satisfied by my performance.

The problem isn't that what I wrote will make no difference, have no effect, etc. If that were the decisive issue, why would I ever say anything? I'm not trying to change the world; I'm just trying to engage other curious and concerned citizens who also want to think about issues reflectively and form positions that they think are factually supportable and morally defensible. I'm trying to help them so they'll help me back, since I'm by no means certain I'm right either.

No, the problem wasn't the futility of what I said but the incompleteness. "Don't look to statistics" -- could be read as denigrating the utility of empirical inquiry in assessing public policy and as expressing a sort of nihilistic "who cares, nothing we can do!" attitude, both of which would deeply misrepresent how I feel about evidence-based policymaking generally & about using evidence to think about guns.

So to amend I will emend.  

I now want to point out that in fact, while the empirical evidence on the relationship between gun control and homicide is (at this time at least) utterly inconclusive, there certainly are policies out there that we have very solid evidence to believe would reduce gun-related homicides very substantially.

The one at the top of the list, in my view, is to legalize recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

The theory behind this policy prescription is that illegal markets breed competition-driven violence among suppliers by offering the prospect of monopoly profits and by denying them lawful means for enforcing commercial obligations.

The evidence is ample. In addition to empirical studies of drug-law enforcement and crime rates, it includes the marked increase in homicide rates that attended alcohol prohibition and the subsequent, dramatic deline of it after repeal of the 18th Amendment.

from Claude Fischer, Berkeley Blog Actually, it's pretty interesting to look at homicide rates over a broader historical time frame than typically is brought into view by those who opportunistically crop the picture in one way or another to support their position for or against gun control.  What you see is that there is a pretty steady historical trend toward decline in the US punctuated by expected noisy interludes but also by what appear to be some genuine, and genuinely dramatic, jumps & declines.

One of the jumps appears to have occurred with the onset of prohibition and one of the declines with repeal of prohibition.  Social scientists doing their best to understand the evidence generally have concluded that that those are real shifts, and that they really were caused by prohibition and repeal.  

from Claude Fischer, Berkeley Blog

Criminologists looking at the impact of drug prohibition can use the models developed in connection with alcohol prohibition and other modeling strategies to try to assess the impact of drug prohibition on crime. Obviously the evidence needs to be interpreted, supports reasonable competing interpretations, and can never do more than justify provisional conclusions, ones  that are necessarily subject to revision in light of new evidence, new analyses, and so forth.

But I'd say the weight of the evidence pretty convincingly shows that drug-related homicides generated as a consequence of drug prohibition are tremendously high and account for much of the difference in the homicide rates in the U.S. and those in comparable liberal market societies (the non-liberal, non-market societies all are burdened with homicide rates orders of magnitude higher; guns don't explain that--  the pacifying influence of doux commerce does).  By all means decide for yourself, though; I've cited some reading material at the end of this post & urge others to call our attention to more in the comments section.

There are obviously other spikes & dips in the "secular" (as econometricians would say; here that's a very nice adjective to use) downward trend in homicide in the U.S. E.g., the upsurge of homicides in the 1960s and the decline in the 1990s. Most of the gun-control combatants mine this period for support for their claims -- they should, since the data are rich with support for specious inference.  Scholarly discussion here recognizes that the evidence on the contribution of guns to these jumps is utterly, hopelessly inconclusive.

There is a very interesting empirical study, though, by economist Jeffrey Miron, who concludes that the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the difference in homicide rates in the US and in other liberal market societies is attributable to our drug prohibition policies. Gun availability in the US, according to this hypothesis, doesn't directly account for the difference in homicide rates between the US and these countries; rather, gun availability mediates the impact between drug prohibition and homicide rates in the US, because the criminogenic properties of drug prohibition create both a demand for murder of one's competitors and a demand for guns to use for that purpose.  

One of the very nice things about Miron's analysis, too, is that he is appropriately provisional about his conclusions:  

The empirical results presented above provide a possible explanation for the large differences in violence rates across countries, and they suggest that previous analyses might have spuriously attributed these differences to gun control or availability. According to the analysis here, differences in drug prohibition enforcement explain differences in violence, which in turn explain differences in gun ownership that correlate positively with violence but do not cause that violence. Further, the results provide a hint that restrictive gun control regimes can themselves increase violence. As noted above, these results should be considered suggestive rather than conclusive. Future research on these issues will need to exploit time‐series rather than cross‐sectional data.

 That's what a real scholar sounds like, you see. In my view, it's what an open-minded citizen sounds like too.

Now one thing to note: Obviously, decriminalizing marijuana and cocaine couldn't be expected to prevent mass shootings like the one in Newtown, or Aurora, or Phoenix, or Columbine, etc. (Maybe there'd be fewer guns around, actually, if we didn't have the demand for them associated with their contribution to the illegal drug trade, but there are already so many around -- the gun & people populations are neck-and-neck -- that I think disturbed people would still have no trouble getting their hands on them.)

But here's another thing to note: these very sad incidents "represent only a sliver of America's overall gun violence." Those who are appropriately interested in reducing gun homicides generally and who are (also appropriately) making this tragedy the occasion to discuss how we as a society can and must do more to make our citizens safe, and who are, in the course of making their arguments invoking (appropraitely!) the overall gun homicide rate should be focusing on what we can be done most directly and feasibly to save the most lives.

Repealing drug laws would do more --  much, much, much more -- than banning assault rifles (a measure I would agree is quite appropriate); barring carrying of concealed handguns in public  (I'd vote for that in my state, if after hearing from people who felt differently from me, I could give an account of my position that fairly meets their points and doesn't trade on tacit hostility toward or mere incomprehension of  whatever contribution owning a gun makes to their experience of a meaningful free life); closing the "gun show" loophole; extending waiting periods etc.  Or at least there is evidence for believing that, and we are entitled to make policy on the best understanding we can form of how the world works so long as we are open to new evidence and aren't otherwise interfering with liberties that we ought, in a liberal society, to respect.

...Now, what other policies might help? And in particular, if we are concerned about deaths of children?   Well, there's swimming pools .... But I've said enough for now.


Barnett, R. & Trip, B. Drug Prohibition and the Weakness of Public Policy’(1994). Yale LJ 103, 2593. 

Husak, D. Legalize This! The Case for Decriminalizing Drugs. (Verso, New York; 2002).

Jensen, G.F. Prohibition, Alcohol, and Murder Untangling Countervailing Mechanisms. Homicide Studies 4, 18-36 (2000).

Kleiman, M. Marijuana : costs of abuse, costs of control. (Greenwood Press, New York; 1989).

Kleiman, M., Caulkins, J.P. & Hawken, A. Drugs and drug policy : what everyone needs to know. (Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York; 2011).

MacCoun, R.J. & Reuter, P. Drug war heresies : learning from other vices, times, and places. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. ; New York; 2001).

Miron, J.A. & Zwiebel, J. The Economic Case Against Drug Prohibition. The Journal of Economic Perspectives 9, 175-192 (1995).

Miron, J.A. Violence, Guns, and Drugs: A Cross‐Country Analysis*. Journal of Law and Economics 44, 615-633 (2001).

 Pinker, S. The better angels of our nature : why violence has declined. (Viking, New York; 2011).


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Reader Comments (38)

The following comment is not really on topic, so you may delete it.

I just want to note, that I thought for much of the blog post you would totally miss the point. However, indeed I missed your point. To prevent that, it would likely help if you started with a short version of the paragraphs from "Now one thing to note" onwards. The reader would be able to more readily follow your logic instead of asking: what the heck has that to do with the current discussion?

And on topic. Yes, you're right, but that should be discussed independently from the conclusions one might draw from recent (or rather: frequent?) "sad incidents".

December 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterob

@ob: That's not at all off topic. Thank you.

I actually did anticipate that some people would hvae that reaction; but I think it is a reaction they should critidcally reflect on.

This is a horrible incident; and there's no point trying to figure out whether it shoudl be characterized as "frequent" b/c any frequency higher than "never" is morally unacceptable and unbearable.

But it's also horrible when kids in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago get shot b/c they are caught in the cross-fire of gang battles related to the drug war; not 20 at a time, but the numbers do add up, and so does the grief of the parents. Those are among the foreseeable lives saved if we got rid of drug laws.

There are also lots of adults killed because of drug-related violence. They are not children but each is *somebody's" child; indeed,if that adult was someone involved in the drug trade, his or her parent likely grieved for the life of a child destroyed *by* the drug war, even before it was lost *to* the drug war.

I wouldn't criticize anyone whose attention was riveted to the problem of needless gun deaths by an incident as gripping and horrible as this. But I would hope that on reflection they'd agree that the point they for sure don't want to to miss is that we should care about everybody; and that we certainly shouldn't be judging the value of policies that would reduce the likelihood of gun violence by a measure that doesn't value everybody equally.

Also, I *don't* mean to come off as self-righteous here. In fact, I'm talking to/about myself as much as I am to/about anyone else. Go & count how many of my posts are about repealing drug laws!

Our motivation to improve the well-being of others can say good and also less good things about us. I'm very sad about Newtown; I'm also disturbed, on reflection, that I'm not that sad a lot more often.


December 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Interesting post.

==]] Gun availability in the US, according to this hypothesis, doesn't directly account for the difference in homicide rates between the US and these countries; rather, gun availability mediates the impact between drug prohibition and homicide rates in the US, because the criminogenic properties of drug prohibition create both a demand to murder competitors and a demand for guns to use for that purpose. [[==

Part of why I find it interesting is that I have a sense that "moderator" and "mediator" roles of certain (often unidentified) variables, in the search for causality in the relationship between other, more salient variables, is often overlooked - not only in these types of highly charged debates, but also more generally in academic research.

The gun debate would seem to be an excellent example. One camp is heavily invested in seeing a causal relationship between gun control (or lack thereof) and gun violence, and the other is heavily invested in denying any such relationship. The introduction of moderators or mediators - such as drug prohibition - muck up the process, in part because they tend to be very difficult to control for. I would imagine that poverty, income disparity, demographics (such as % of the population who are young males, young males w/o gainful employment, poor young males, etc.) and cultural elements such as prevalence of violent imagery or historical prevalence of gun usage, etc., would similarly have moderator and/or mediator effects while they fail to meet the bar of having a demonstrably causal role.

As to ob's comment on the structure of your post...

Isn't it fascinating to see how our first assessment of someone's logic can shift dramatically upon reading what they have to say subsequently? Sometimes, when I read stated caveats further along in an analysis, I find that I have to go back and reread what came earlier in the analysis, and in doing so, uncover how biases of (my) assumptions colored my first reading. That is, indeed, a very useful tool for me to use when examining for my own "motivated reasoning" - and so I agree that it is a reaction that "should be critically reflected upon."

December 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Wouldn't employing more police have a similar effect while also have the salutary consequence of making people actually feel safe?

December 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdave hoffman

I thought this was a very good post. I don't really have anything to add, but wanted you to know there are people who support your position too. It's a difficult situation to talk about, I know.

December 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

In the TV news, local newspaper, and the radio I see proposals as Joshua penned that are "heavily invested in seeing a causal relationship between gun control." The operative word is casual. In our local newspaper, once again it is proposed to arm teachers. Using weapons to stop a mass murderer is direct. Yet, when you read or listen to those proposing gun control they make two main statements. The first is that THEIR gun control proposal will make a DIRECT difference, which is at least unknown, and, worse, thus far known to be untrue. The second is expressed that this time they will NOT ACCEPT those opposed to gun control preventing a SOLUTION. Of course, it is their new proposal that somehow looks like the old proposals, some of which have been tried and failed. I found it unsurprising that they objected to the armed teacher plan and called it "idiotic."

The problem is that already the gun owners are responding to prevent the gun control approach for the incident in Connecticut. NRA is already calling its members, and persons, such as myself, to donate to a war kitty to help preserve freedom. Already, the NRA is pointing out that the “correct” translation is that the gun control advocates will not accept anything less than the surrender of the right to bear arms. With the gun control group’s past use of the legislative process to use success to enable further encroachments of the right to bear arms, historically, the NRA is making the correct translation.

Yet, arming teachers is a direct approach to solve the problem that is being claimed as the one to solve. This proposal has the advantage that it does not violate our constitution. The method(s) that would be used to make it safe are method(s) that the gun control group proposed for the general armed population in times past. The training, etc would be as most positions, jobs, or professions require, a legal condition of employment. If one does not want this, one need not be a teacher. Yet, the gun control group's response in our state was "idiotic." The cultural war is in full swing already.

I do not think the gun control group proposals meet your definition of the conversation a liberal democratic political society should be having. The real problem with the gun control group is that it is about gun control, not stopping the murders. It is a castle defense style system that has been repeatedly shown to not work, or work poorly. Besides control does not address the problem. The problem is not the weapon. The problem is the person killing others. Our species has quite a history of this.

From my point of view as someone who is trained and works professionally in safety, the secondary failure for our society is the failure of the gun control group to admit to the root cause. I believe they know the root cause. They even use its identification as an excuse not to address the problem due to it conflicts with their cultural POV. The primary failure is that our society is not trying to address the problem with an honest discussion. Otherwise, a serious discussion of arming teachers, perhaps even Yale professors would occur. Recognizing that drugs are as much a part of the human condition as religion would also be a good place to start.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


[[== Yet, arming teachers is a direct approach to solve the problem that is being claimed as the one to solve. ===]

If there is an armed teacher in a classroom where a mass shooter starts killing students, that teacher might well be able limit the number of students that would be killed. But as a matter of threat assessment, it seems to me to be a poorly thought out strategy: It might address the immediate circumstances of an extremely rare event, but consider all the follow on possibilities would apply much more broadly.

[[== The training, etc would be as most positions, jobs, or professions require, a legal condition of employment. If one does not want this, one need not be a teacher. ==]]

One of the problems with our educational system is recruiting teachers with the skill set important to be successful. Are you actually suggesting that we eliminate from that pool anyone who might have that skill set and be dedicated to working as a teacher despite the relatively poor remuneration, anyone who doesn't think that being a teacher necessarily requires assuming the responsibility of gunning down anyone who might be threatening his/her students with mortal danger? Consider the liabilities involved if a teacher failed to act as we might hope (consider the studies that show how many soldiers find themselves incapable of firing at the enemy), or mistakenly shot someone that wasn't actually armed, etc.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dave Hoffman -

Not everyone would react to the presence of more police by feeling safer, and it wouldn't likely reduce the probability of situations like Sandy Hook - but it certainly seems logical that it would reduce gun violence more generally, and a further salutary effect of being cost effective (when considering avoided losses), particularly in high crime areas.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Good stuff, Dan, and IMO one of your better pieces of writing. Thank you for forcing me to look up the word "emend" - I shall inflict it upon my own readers at the earliest opportunity.

As to your proposal, with which I entirely agree: The problem is, hardly anyone REALLY cares about that aggregate gun deaths total or we'd have legalized drugs a long time ago. Nobody doubts that drug economics are responsible for the vast majority of US gun deaths. In Mexico, the issue is even more stark. Some 60,000 have died there in the past six years because of drug prohibition and the US public could care less. (After all, not only do many drug dealers number among the deceased, nearly all of them are Mexicans.)

Americans only get bent out of shape when the "wrong" people get shot, and nobody thinks first graders are the right people. Indeed, there's an argument to be made - indeed, one that's frequently made if you read newspaper comment sections - that the "right" people killing each other has a societal benefit: A friend of mine who used to work at the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission believed that the main cause for the decline in murders after the peak in the late '80s was that the killers mostly killed each other off in brutal turf wars. In Texas, until the law was changed recently, it wasn't uncommon for juries to give murderers probation if they thought the victim needed killing.

So I agree with you completely regarding the policy suggestion on maximizing reductions in gun deaths, but I suppose I'm too cynical to think that this episode will be enough to provide the idea any traction. Hope I'm proven wrong. Until then, preach brother! And happy holidays. :)

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGritsforbreakfast

@Gritsforbreakfast: Wow, I'm on a roll! First Andrew Gelman said he liked my graphic and now *you* compliment my writing! If I forced you to look up "emend," serves you right for forcing me to learn what logorrehic means.
On the cynicism ... I share your orientation, but have we not in recent times seen many things that give us less reason for it? To be sure along w/ many reasons to be more, but if we try to make an unbiased measure, do you not see some good signs? They aren't reason to accept anything that is indeed unacceptable; but they are (among the) reasons not to be discouraged.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Joshua, part of the discussion that seems to have drifted away from reality is asking and coming up with suggestions that will accomplish what has been stated. The basic statement I heard is "we are going to do whatever it takes to protect the children." An analysis of the proposals indicates it is gun control that is being offered, and it has little to no chance of effecting or limiting so much as one mass killing. Yet the rhetoric and the cultural war goes on. When I offered the armed teacher suggestion, I thought of it as more of a conversation opener. As I have thought more about it, it has more elements necessary for success than having a few policeman. It would be more cost effective than a policeman in every classroom. Yet, even such would not guarentee no more mass killings. Such is impossible to guarentee even if somehow rid the whole world of firearms. There are too many ways to kill.

The objections you supply would apply as well to putting policemen in schools in most parts or so similarly to matter little. Yet, without such a force, even getting rid of the guns, would not work. There would still be the rare event that lead to a mass murder. The reaon I brought it up in objectionable scenario is that is what is offered to gun owners, an objectionable policy. But the gun owner does have a legitimate complaint, they were made to shoulder the burden to a policy that does not address the supposed reason for the burden. But in my scenario, even with a teacher quitting rather than training and preparing to shoot someone, there is a lesser monetary burden with the state paying, there are less persons burdened, there is NOT a constitutional provision against us making it a professional requirement, and the adverse experiences are in an effort to emplace a policy that works; and most importantly that teacher who really objects can get another job, which cannot be said of a constitutional right..

It is to my thinking, the best of all the bad we have to consider.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


I can't agree that changes such as decreasing access to assault weapons will definitively have "little to no chance at effecting or limiting so much as one mass killing." Consider Sandy Hook. The weapons used were purchased fairly recently. I would guess it fairly unlikely that Lanza's mother would have purchased those weapons through illegal means. An assault weapons ban might limit such events going forward. Perhaps unlikely, but theoretically possible.

As for the likely success of arming teachers, again, yes - it might limit the extent of an extremely rare event, but you have to weigh that possibility against the likelihood of exacerbating other, more significant problems: more guns in the hands of people who might intentionally or accidentally use them in ways that are unintended by the policy. We could think together to come up with a long list of such possibilities.

That needs to be considered when you make a comparison (as you did) to the cost benefits of adding police (no one said putting a cop in every classroom), or better still, redefining the "war on drugs." What is the cost/benefit comparison of each approach? What are the potential downsides, and the associated costs, of hiring more police or lifting drug prohibitions?

As for offering to gun owners an objectionable policy: Sorry, but I just have trouble accepting a restriction on assault weapons as an unconstitutional imposition - unless it is somehow imposed by the government without political support of the electorate (in opposition somehow to legislature created by Congress) and against the ruling of SCOTUS. I don't believe that there is any valid definition of what is or isn't "constitutional" outside of what is affected by Congress and SCOTUS. Those government bodies are, in fact, what determine constitutionality. If, as the result of Sandy Hook, legislatures enact assault weapons bans, and SCOTUS doesn't overturn those bans, they will be, in fact, constitutional.

Keep in mind that the NRA has morphed from an entity the represented the interests of gun owners to an entity that represents the interests of the gun industry - and that exploits political (extremist rightwing) rhetoric to achieve that aim.

I don't buy the "slippery slope" argument that an assault weapons ban is chink in the armor that will lead to a complete weapons ban. A complete weapons ban would only come about if a strong majority of Americans felt it was called for. It will not be imposed by fiat - although the rhetoric of the NRA is specifically intended to whip up concern of that possibility. A complete weapons ban is politically inviable in any reasonably close time frame - so the fear being stoked about "Obama's coming to take our guns" is a red herring. If it were to come about as a reflection of the will of the American electorate, IMO, it would be, by definition, "constitutional."

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I agree with your conclusions here. The challenge in making this work is that we won't really repeal drug laws. It's almost certain that we'll replace the ones we have with a new set of drug laws that establish the federal government as the nation's drug supplier. And, the challenge for parents will be to figure out how to tell children that all these "escape substances" are bad for them while the laws of the country indicate that they are perfectly OK. I suppose that warning labels can be used as they are on cigarettes, but there's a lot to reason out before we can move forward on this.

Also, roadside alcohol testing is not difficult. Are there good tools for testing impairment due to other substances?

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTFR

@Joshua & @JFP: I think you are actually on the same side; you just need to agree to state your positions at the highest level of generality that still makes sense & makes an interesting claim. I think that would be, "One can tell from the over- and underinclusiveness of the consequentialist policy arguments people make on guns that something besides minimizing homicide rates is motivating them." There are in fact about 1 billion things we could do besides adopting gun control laws *or* arming schools that would more reliably & dramatically reduce death among children. Why not ban swimming pools? They kill scores more kids every yr than guns. Say that & people -- those who want to ban assault rifles & those who want to repeal gun-free-school-zone laws -- will look at you like you have 2 heads, and say "you are missing the point." Indeed: because *their* point isn't about saving childrens' lives; it's about using law to construct, advance, attack, etc. meanings that are associated with ways of life. I'm not sure what's more disturbing, either: that so many people are committied to using law to impose their partisan meanings on others; or that they in fact are committed to doing this & don't even realize it ... As I just said to Gemenishaft girl,, people don't have visions; visions have people. This needs to be *fixed* -- b/c it is the single most serious threat to our freedom that remains for those of us lucky enough to live in liberal market societies

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Joshua, are you stating restricting access to assault weapons would help, when my point was that there are other ways to commit mass murder? Your words "might" and "theoretically possible" are correct; however, these words would not apply to an infringement on a constitutional right. The correct words would be "definetly deny access." So, the comparison is one that will be known to do harm, versus one that "might" help and "theoretically possible" to help.

Your second paragraph underlines what is wrong with the first. You present objections that can be measured if we implemented my suggestion. Your first paragraph is one that you have admitted can not be measured. Yes, one could come up with all sorts of possibilities, but I seem to remember that coming up with objections that might be possible should not preclude those actions that are known to help. So, the better path would be to come up with these possibilities, rank their threat and their liklihood, and do a risk assessment. ANd even better, the items you object to, and solutions implemented CAN be measured and SHOULD be measured so the we could make the system one of continuous improvement, such that we ensured we saved as many as practical. Since practicality has been brought into the discussions not just by you, but by gun control advocates and the NRA.

I agree with cost benefits, per se, since that is part of risk management. However, the political quote was that we would do whatever it took to stop another such incident. That is not what these politicians, nor you are actually arguing. YOu are arguing the practicality of cost. Since we are not going to do whatever it takes, I have to wonder what is the real reason, other than motivated reasoning, that the rhetoric is being applied to firearms.

Your objection is noted; though I note others have the opposite opinion. That the SCOTUS and Congress define constitutionality I agree. Though I would point out that the weapon used was not a military assualt weapon. Such weapons are restricted to the military. The weapon was a semi-automatic with a large clip feed. That weapon is used for hunting in other configurations. In the configuration used in the murders, it is simply a semi auto made to look like an assault weapon. If you wish to restrict clip size that would be possible. In terms of functionality, you would have to ban hunting weapons of that kind. The last time I sold firearms, semi automatics are the most popular purchase for hunting. This has been determined before. Definitions are difficult and can lead to the declaration of unconstitutional due to the vagueness. In terms of mass murder, one can use the hunting version with multiple small clips and commit mass murder. The ban does not accomplish what is claimed unless it applies to all semi-autos.

You may not buy the argument of the slippery slope, but then you will not be successful stopping the mayhem as the paragraph above demonstrates. You will not be successful even if you ban all firearms. A different method will be used to commit mass murder. Besides the history of gun control is that each success was used and was trumpeted as a stepping stone for more gun control. If the gun control advocates, and their counter the NRA believe this, and show that it is supported historically, politically, and legally, which agrees with what I have been able to determine, the closest I could come to agreeing with you is that the slippery slope for this particular legislation has not been experienced yet. I would note that already I am seeing control advocates claim that an assault gun ban is not enough, we need to include handguns and all semi-autos. So, I have to ask, what wuold it take to convince you that the sliperry slope is real?

On what the NRA is or is not; just change the words and you have the argument that skeptics make that scientists are paid to find AGW. I buy your argument and theirs the same; not much at all.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@TFR: You might be right about "we won't..." That sort of conclusion is, I suppose, overdetermined. But the one part that gives me pause is your point about "parents .. tell chldren."

I think drug laws are absurd. But there are mothers & fathers in the same neighborhoods where children are shot in the x-fire in Chicago who *don't*-- who view those laws as moral resources of a sort in their effort to mould the character of their children in ways that will conduce to their children living good lives...

In a setting in which they & I could exchange views about what to do, I would present the argument I have made above & show them all the evidence I could think of. But in fact, they know the things I'm saying already. They've thought a lot, and argued a lot, about these points, too. Many might agree with the position I've outline, but probably a decided majority would not. See Chicago v. Morales; & Pratt v. CHA.

These citizens also know-- as I concede -- that all of these things are very complicated. They would tell me that the circumstances of their lives -- where they face all of these risks and others too -- give them an insight into how things work, factually & morally, that I lack -- b/c at least relative to them, these things are all just abstractoins for me. They have a point. Because they are the ones who are most affected, & because they are affected in a way that gives them every incentive to consider all the interests & values at stake, I believe people in those communities--like those in any other community, *so long as they are situated in a way that makes them internalize all the relevant costs*--should be able to decide for themsleves: on drugs & on guns & on various alternative forms of law-enforcement that alternately adjust how the balance between liberty & order is struck.

December 21, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

"One can tell from the over- and underinclusiveness of the consequentialist policy arguments people make on guns that something besides minimizing homicide rates is motivating them."

I agree with you there - and I agree that the phenomenon you describe characterizes the basic arguments on both sides of the fence. Gun control is just one of a long list of issues that are exploited as proxy battles in a tribal war (climate change included, btw.) But maybe even to identify the fight as tribalism is missing the point in a sense; it is a struggle for finding identity- personal, political, social, and cultural identity.

I do have some quibbles:

Why not ban swimming pools? They kill scores more kids every yr than guns.

I'd have to see some data on that. With a quick search, I have read that 8 kids die each day from gun violence. And while some would probably disagree, I see banning all swimming pools as being on a different scale than than banning assault weapons - at many levels. Still, I would argue that if such a notion received popular support, and was legislated and stood up to SCOTUS scrutiny, so be it. Would it be true that banning swimming pools might save the lives of more kids than banning assault weapons? I would guess probably - but both initiatives would need to be measured by the ratio of lives saved to logistical/political ramifications and likelihood, and accompanying "harm."

But again, while I am in agreement with your basic point, I am unafraid of addressing these struggles for identity/proxy wars/quantifying "harm" of various alternatives through formal processes of stakeholder dialogue. That is what I see as the viable solution many of these controversies. The formal process of stakeholder dialog (mixed with basic principles of conflict resolution and the "full cost accounting"of costs and benefit analysis) breaks down the tribal lines and gives people a mechanism for real dialogue, and for establishing a commonality of identity and for recognizing the commonality of values. I have been told many times in the blogosphere that I only advocate those methodologies because I'm trying to lay a smoke screen so I can impose my socialist/warmist/eco-Nazi/progressive/librul designs to destroy capitalism and the life-sustaining benefits of fossil fuel.

Oh well.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

Many might agree with the position I've outline, but probably a decided majority would not.

I doubt that. In Philadelphia, there has been broad support for limiting gun sales (to one gun a month) - as just one measure of gun control. It has received majority support when put on a ballot in the city. Legislation didn't go into effect because it was killed by the state legislature - essentially by politicians from other parts of the state, in collusion with the NRA - which felt it was its business to dictate to the people of Philadelphia whether or not they should be able to restrict guns in their own community.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Joshua, are you stating restricting access to assault weapons would help,

Except that isn't what I said. I qualified my statement - as you later noted.

Again, the reason why I don't buy the "slippery slope" argument is because I accept our democratic process. Even if the nature of the American constituency were to dramatically change in nature, and move us into a society with much more restrictive regulation of guns (something that is highly improbable in an near-term context) - in my view it wouldn't be a "slippery slope," it would be democracy. If the American voting constituency supports gun control legislation, IMV, it isn't an "infringement on a constitutional right."

I'm not focused on "stopping mayhem." The fact is that the murder rate in this country is lower than it has been in the past. I am interested, however, in considering alternative policies that might reduce gun violence with a consideration of the logistics, likelihood of implementation, and the costs and benefits.

I say bring on the comprehensive cost/benefit analysis. I am not defending the "do whatever it takes" rhetoric - and I would certainly hope that you wouldn't defend the rhetoric of the NRA - although disappointingly, it seems to me that you might be. If you have a counter argument against the NRA's exploitation of extremist rightwing rhetoric to advance the interests of the gun industry, I'd be interested in hearing it. IMV, comparing that issue to "skeptics'" arguments about scientists and AGW (and saying you don't buy it) seems like, essentially, a non-sequitur.

As for whether or not the guns used were "military" - please listen to the interview I linked.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua, the Diaz piece is why I used the non-sequitur. If you allow me the latitude you are giving him, I can “prove” that AGW is just a conspiracy for UN and scientists to make money. In the first 15 minutes I noted about eight incorrect or misleading statements, all re-enforcing his bias. The 9mm was not developed for the civilian market. It was developed to standardize NATO munitions. The armor piercing bullets were developed for the military as well. Gadaffi’s son not only had access to military weapons, he was part of their organization.

The reason that weapons are sold to civilians is the same reason that drugs are sold to civilians: better profit margin. I note that this is known by the military and our politicians. Diaz correctly notes the “spray and pray” mentality on the battle field. He correctly notes that semi’s are more accurate. He correctly notes that the changes to make the semi look like a military weapon are cosmetic, they are not 3 burst, or full auto. Then he makes the argument that one can fire a semi as fast as the trigger can be pulled. The misleading part, he leaves out that which he already stated, the accuracy. Yes, they would be no different. You would be shooting your bullets into the roof, if true.

All you have to do is get the specifications for rate of fire for full auto and semi; and they are much different. Typical difference is 15 rounds per second versus 0.8 rounds per second. He does not point out that weapons can be used for defense or offense. He conflates law abiding use with criminal use. I am sure they are more, but listened instead to what is his real argument. As far as I can tell, it is he does not like firearms. He is a culture warrior.

The real story was there was a demand for military weapons that met a certain specification. They were made. They were bought by the military. The manufacturer used product differentiation to increase sales. What I don’t remember hearing or reading in the Diaz piece is that the main customers were military and ex-military who wanted something similar to what they were trained in. That part may be missing for as Diaz complains it is almost impossible to get hold of data, much less the data needed. I can only tell you that as someone who sold firearms, soldiers and ex-soldiers preferred to buy what they used in the armed service. Perhaps I missed it when my computer crashed after 30 minutes of it and I was tired of the advocacy.

If “right to bear arms” is not annulled or a particular law allowed after reviewed by SCOTUS, it is an "infringement on a constitutional right"; whether or not a majority want to support it. That is the law in the US. I “buy” into the slippery slope here in the US because that is what I have experienced.

I defend the NRA’s right to advocacy as I would Diaz. If someone tried to take away his right of free speech and the ACLU was defending him I would send money, as I have. I also send money to the NRA on specific issues for the same reason. Don’t conflate actions with beliefs; they can be different.

I am against violence. I don’t single out gun violence. I do support our freedoms.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

1. On pools, Levitt is famous for calculating that a swimming pool is 100x more likely to kill a child <10 than a gun. But the comparison is a staple in risk perception literature (and risk differential can be calculated in zillions of ways), used to illustrate, supposedly, the "availabiity effect," since stories of shootings of kids are reported at much higher frequency in news media. But that's question beggging: the reporting is itself responsive to demand on part of the public, which views shooting of kids as more meaningful than drowning. I didn't raise the issue of bannig pools b/c I support (or oppose) doing so, but as heuristic, or test: the fact that people are happy to live w/ lethality of pools & fixate on guns & in fact react w/ indignation when you poijt out that pools are more dangerous is evidence that the motivation for focusing on guns is what guns *mean*, not what they *do.*

2. ON inner-citiy political preferences: I was unclear. No doubt about it, residents of inner cities -- particular minority ones -- support more gun control. But African American inner city residents also are also against legalization of drugs, including marijuana -- or have been historically.

December 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

....since stories of shootings of kids are reported at much higher frequency in news media.


I fail to understand what point you're making in talking about swimming pools.

Of course they're reported much more frequently - they happen much more frequently! (Don't know about that if we isolate assault weapons per se, but certainly if we are including all guns)

There is also the question of intention. Deaths that result from willfully shooting a gun have a different emotional impact than deaths that are purely an accidental outcome, and understandably so - as in that sense they seem more "preventable." That, also, is not at all in the surprising, nor to me in any way irrational or illogical. Consider the generally different reactions (including legal penalties) to homicides as compared to deaths through corporate malfeasance.

I fail to see any meaning in pointing to one gun and one pool and saying that the pool is more likely to cause a child's death. Deaths from guns is a very significant component of some people's lives, although not so much people who live in communities like Sandy Hook. Deaths from accidental drowning in pools affects far fewer people.

Eliminating all the swimming pools in the country, in addition to having all sorts of practical and logistical complications and being unrealistic would result in the end with preventing far fewer deaths than eliminating all guns (which of course is subject to man complications and is unrealistic),


Thanks for the link. First, I'm not sure how well that study reflects current attitudes; particularly given the results of recent referendums, prevalent attitudes in the country in general have moved since 1997. Second, while the study reports majority support for "get tough" policies in the AA community - it reports that attitude to be much less prevalent in the AA community than the white community (despite the countervailing associations with educational levels). So we start with a community much more likely to support legalization, and likely move even further in that direction over time. Thus - I would still question your assertion of "...probably a strong majority...." And this poll seems to support my thinking:

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I'm sure that we both fully respect freedom of speech, would not want to take away the rights of advocacy, are against violence, don't single out gun violence, and support our freedoms. Given that you needed to reference those points, I suspect that we have reached the point of diminishing returns with further discussion. Sometimes, it seems, that with blog discussions, no matter an intent to share opinion and converge on views, divergence takes place. I do not think that is because we are moving to the appropriate configuration of position based on our beliefs, but because of the inadequacies of the medium.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


1. Accidental shootings of children are more likely to receive high-level coverage than accidental drowning of a child in a pool. Latter is a non-story. (Have you seen Bowling for Columbine; it actually has a scence that bears directly on this-- not sure if Moore realized the significance of it). Accordingly, people form view that accident shootings of kids w/ guns kept in home occur much more frequently than they do & underestimate how often swimming pools lead to accident drwownigns of kids.

2. Even in absolute numbers more kids <10 drown than are shot, intentionally or otherwise. See Levitt link in last response.

3. I don't have strong intutions about relative logistical difficultiies of swimming pool control & gun control -- do you?

4. What does intent have to do with it? IGun homicide rates include accidental shootings; people are very concerned about accidental shootings of kids w/ guns in home -- it's always a big story & occasion to express outrage that people own guns at all. The emotio nfactor is higher -- for members of the public anyway -- when it is gun than when it is pool

5. I agree people have different emotional reactions to deaths from swimming & guns -- . That's all about meanings

6. I am not proposing to ban pools or do anyting like that. I am using the example as a test to see what really motivates people. If they cared about "saving kids lives," they wouldn't be focusing only on reglating assault rifles or putting armed guards in the schools; they'd be looking at swimming pools. If they wanted to reduce homicides -- including ones by guns -- they'd be talkig about getting rid of drug laws. People impute harm to things that offend their values, and when things that offend their values cause harm, they react in a strong way. Things that are "normal" relative to their values are seen as harmless; or if they cause harm, well, it's not nearly so emotionally troubling etc.

December 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I agree Joshua. It seems in the blog world we are condemned to slice of life moments, and dressing stick figures. However, I have enjoyed our conversation. I find myself supporting the notion that we should re-evaluate drugs on their effects wrt weapons. I can attest that in the more rural South, African Americans are typically much against drugs and their effects on the community. Gun control less so. In the South, military service was a means of advancement, and many have the confidence in their own ability with weapons versus being a victim from forces such as criminals in the drug business. Though without data, I do not know that that is mainly due to the sex of the person. Many females I know are against the way firearms have hurt the community. I would like a more thorough national conversation to take place. I do not think it will change many minds, but I think the dialogue should occur.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Dan -

2. Even in absolute numbers more kids <10 drown than are shot, intentionally or otherwise. See Levitt link in last response.

I'm not buying it. The Google returns:

This site that shows under 19 years' deaths at @3500 per year.

This site (kind of a weird link) shows under 14 years' deaths at @790 per year

It seems that 40%+ are homicides (depending on the site) - which has, understandably, a different emotional impact than accidental deaths.

And these numbers are deaths - while you spoke of getting shot, which makes your statement even less likely. The NYT site shows hospital reports of gun injuries at close to a 5 to 1 ratio to deaths.

Obviously, part of the difference in stats relates to ages - but do you have some definitive source that you're using other than the Deltoid article?

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

6. I am not proposing to ban pools or do anyting like that.

That is clear. I didn't think otherwise.

I am using the example as a test to see what really motivates people. If they cared about "saving kids lives," they wouldn't be focusing only on reglating assault rifles or putting armed guards in the schools; they'd be looking at swimming pools. If they wanted to reduce homicides -- including ones by guns -- they'd be talkig about getting rid of drug laws. People impute harm to things that offend their values, and when things that offend their values cause harm, they react in a strong way. Things that are "normal" relative to their values are seen as harmless; or if they cause harm, well, it's not nearly so emotionally troubling etc.

I think that caring about saving kids' lives is not mutually exclusive with being poor at risk assessment. I agree that bias tends to distort people's analysis on these issues - but to say that people don't care about kids' deaths (as you imply by saying *if* they care about saving kids' lives) seems waaaay to strong, IMV.

4. What does intent have to do with it?

I think that it is pretty well-established that judgements of intent correlate to judgements about criminal activity. I've already stated my reasoning. The larger emotional reaction to gun deaths as opposed to accidental drowning is not merely the mechanistic aspect of how the kid died. Sure, emotional reactions to accidental shootings (from those not directly tied to the death) are probably deeper than emotional reactions to accidental drownings. Yes, a distortion of threat assessment is likely partially explanatory for that difference. But part of that is perfectly understandable in that accidental gun deaths are inherently linked to homicides, drive-by shootings, etc. If intentional drownings in any way approached the number of kids who die in intentional shootings, I would imagine you would find a *more* similarity in the reactions.

3. I don't have strong intuitions about relative logistical difficulties of swimming pool control & gun control -- do you?

Not particularly. But I do have a sense of which would be more realistic - as is born out by reality. There are many more people who would want to see guns banned than to see swimming pools banned.

What is the reason for that? Irrational risk assessment? Sure, to some extent. The fact that guns is linked to tribal identities whereas swimming pools aren't? Sure, to some extent. But that isn't the full explanation, IMV. For the reasons I've written about.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

JFP - I do believe that the most expedient (and cost effective) way to diminish gun violence is to revamp our drug control policies (although, of course, assessing the exact policy changes and likely outcomes is very complicated). Nothing I said should be construed otherwise. (I also think that hiring more police would be similarly advisable - although focusing specifically on putting police in schools is basically a red herring.)

Yes, I have no doubt that personal history with guns (as likely different in the North and the South) will affect perspectives on gun control. There is clearly evidence of a gender influence (see the link above). In particular, gun control measures received considerably greater support from Republican female Congresscritters than Republican male Congresscritters; given the increase in female legislators - that is likely to have an impact on gun control legislation.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua: If you start counting 16, 17, 18 19 etc., yes the scale tips decidedly toward guns over swimming pools. Gun-control advocacy groups will draw line at 20 or whatever & then just say "kids," knowing that will make people thing of cuter, younger ones. I picked pools & <10 or whatever as the alternative framing for whether to de-escalate or escalate gun possession in schools.

But I'm much more serious about the drugs & much more interested in just lowering number of people -- of all ages, all colors, etc. -- being shot dead. Indeed, I feel like I'm on or over the threshold of getting really weird about the pools at this point; it's only a device for thinking about the issue & overusing it -- as likely I'm doing now -- borders on a kind of moral obtuseness.

The "poor at risk assessment" & value point is more complicated & interesting. There's an interaction between things like availability & cultural outlooks: we take note of, assign significance to, and recall much more readily the harms associated with behavior that we find deviant. This is one of the mechanisms that make it possible for phiolosphies to have people (who have no philosophies). It also makes the distorted risk assessments into expressions of what/who people value. One can be morally evaluated for one's perceptions -- and lack thereof -- of risk. I think a lot about why I fear what I do & don't what I don't & what that says about the state of my valuations & whether they need calibration.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


If [gun owners] identify as Democratic, their chances are only 1 in 4, or 25% that they have a gun in their home. But the chances are more than twice that, almost 60%, if they are Republicans.


Whether someone ones a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person's political party than their gender, whether they identify as gay or lesbian, whether they're Hispanic whether they live in the South, or a number of other demographic characteristics.


The differences have become more stark in recent years, with gun ownership having become one of the clerest examples of the partisan polarization in the country over the last two decades.


December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua: I know the pools topic has pretty much run its course, but since you're curious, according to the CDC (run the report here and click on categories for more detail), in 2010, 146 kids ages 1 through 10 were killed by firearms, either in homicides or accidentally, whereas 581 kids age 1 through 10 drowned accidentally.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMW

Dan -

...we take note of, assign significance to, and recall much more readily the harms associated with behavior that we find deviant.

Yes. I think that there is what I call a "cognitive" component - related to pattern recognition - that affects "motivated reasoning."

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua: I'm going to take a look at data on African Americans, ideology, gun control & marijuana legaliization. I've got data on that!

Any predictions?

How about you, @MW?


1. African Americans will oppose marijuan legalization by greater margin than whites
2. African Americans will support gun control by greater margiin.
3. Ideology/party-id will interact w/ race in manner that suggests being liberal has smaller efffect on AA's than whites on marijuana legalization (probably not for guns)

I'll likely not get to this until tomorrow at earliest but will post results when I do.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

MW - Thanks,

Yes, it has run its course... but... drowning ≠ in drowning pools. 1-10 ≠ kids. 146/458 killed ≠ <10 shot. And we could guess that there are far more homicides (which have a larger emotional impact) w/ guns than w/ pools.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

1. African Americans will oppose marijuan legalization by greater margin than whites

That would seem to be in direct contrast with the report you linked earlier (which wasn't specific to marijuana but about drug laws: more generally - and which indicated that because of the disparate impact of drug law enforcement in the African American community, ... "..the data indicated that African Americans were less likely to conform to the "get tough' position than those of whites. Fourth, finally, African Americans surveyed in 1987 were much more likely to exhibit ambivalence in their views about drug law enforcement than whites"

And don't forget to control for SES and educational levels. :-)

3. Ideology/party-id will interact w/ race in manner that suggests being liberal has smaller efffect on AA's than whites on marijuana legalization (probably not for guns)

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua: No need to guess. There were 110 firearm homicides and 16 drowning homicides. Of the accidental drowning deaths, 308 were in swimming pools, and 76 were unspecified. The CDC website is your oyster!

DK: I certainly agree with your #2 and #3. I don't have as strong a sense on #1...I'm not sure that #3 can balance out (what I'd imagine to be) the towering opposition to legalization of the (sizable?) white HC crowd.

Joshua again: I don't think opposition to tough enforcement implies opposition to the law itself.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMW

I used to argue for decriminalization of drugs with law enforcement from city police to Federal investigators. Their opinion was do you build more jails or more hospitals. That it was more cost effective to build jails. For crime we have a legal system and jails. Drugs require a medical system and hospitals. Recently, I read that although free hypodermics are available, HIV is still the major medical risk for new intravenous drug use. Although we are doing better at slowing death from HIV, there are costs and medical availability issues. I also remember reading of the increase in heroin users when UK went to their system in the 60’s IIRC. Do we have enough data from legalization of drugs and costs to determine if it is better to accept the deaths from drugs, or even perhaps it is simply another choice with advantage to neither position, just one of personal belief or preference?

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

MW -

==]] Joshua again: I don't think opposition to tough enforcement implies opposition to the law itself. [[==

Perhaps not. Although again, this poll shows majority support in the Black community for legalization of marijuana - and that support is more prevalent in the Black community than the white community:

December 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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