Tuesday, 10 October 2017

You Have to Ask the Right Question



Like just about everyone in the US, and many beyond our shores, I have watched and read the unfolding story of the Las Vegas "gunman," who last week killed 58 people as they attended a country music festival in the shadows of the Mandalay Bay casino complex.

Like many (though decidedly fewer I admit), I wonder if, with this latest horrific event, the US will finally set aside the frankly tribal politics around guns and put in place some sensible measures that may at last curb some of the bloodshed in our country.

I've made my thoughts on the topic pretty clear over the years. The US has thousands of gun killings each year, many many times more than in France, the UK, or other Western European nations. 

There are more murders in a year in Chicago (population two and a half million) than in the entire nation of France (population 65 million).

Ironically, the Las Vegas gunman had rented a hotel room in Chicago, at the time of the Lollapalooza music event, with the idea to kill people clustered at that festival. It's not clear why, but I know people who were in Chicago (my cousin and his young children among them).

It's too awful an idea to spend much time thinking about, but it's a reminder how important the role of chance plays in our lives, despite a belief that we control the levers and knobs that determine the settings.


I do wonder - what is it that should be done to stop this? What should be done.

More to the point, what can be done.

One blog I follow is Scott Adams, of "Dilbert" fame. He gained some notoriety in the past 18 or so months by doggedly explaining why Donald Trump would be elected president. I am not sure how seriously even Adams took his guesses, but following - and the daily reactions - was amusing. 

I think Adams is a somewhat poor cartoonist, from a technical point. But "Dilbert" was always funny. I am not sure Adams is a brilliant man, but often, his suggestions have a common-sense truth to them.

Today, Adams hit the nail squarely as he talked through why, in his opinion, sensible gun control remains beyond our grasp. And it's not all just politics.

He points out that we are just asking the wrong questions. With that, it's obvious that the answers we get back are going to be flawed.
Both sides [of the debate] pretend they are arguing on principle, but neither side is. Both sides are arguing from their personal risk profiles, and those are simply different. Our risk profiles will never be the same across the entire population, so we will never agree on gun control. (emphasis added)
A key counter-argument about gun control is the famous "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."

Personally, I've never found this argument convincing - for one thing, it's what logicians call "truth functionally true." That means to say it is vacuously true, or true by definition. If posessing a gun is illegal, then someone who has a gun, by definition, is breaking the law- an outlaw.


That should not be a shocking revelation.

The gun people go further and say that, because people willing to break the law will not be stopped by yet one more law (in this case, possession of an illegal firearm), the law will not eliminate crime. They go further and offer examples (as Adams points out, like the knife-murderer in Japan) where gun laws will not prevent killing. Even in France, which has pretty strict gun laws, there are still not -zero- murders per year.

But as Adams further points out, the laws are in practical terms not meant to eliminate crime; they are meant to reduce crime to a tolerable amount. 
Humans are lazy and stupid, on average. If you make something 20% harder to do, a lot of humans will pass. It doesn’t matter what topic you are discussing; if you introduce friction, fewer people do it.
Gun laws do not have to be perfect; they just have to good enough. The tail of the distribution of those willing to go the extra mile to commit a senseless murder is pretty extreme. Yes; the lunatic in Japan is still going to find a way, but some number - 80%, 90%? - of would-be-madmen are not going to be willing to exert the effort. 

Thus, the question is not, "How do we end the slaughter." The question to the gun folks would be, "What level of senseless killing is OK for you so that you can have open access to all levels of gun and ammunition?"

We just have to make getting these weapons obnoxious enough that lives are saved. Let's find out what that level is, and get to it.

Another common trope is the famous "slippery slope." Pace Adams's point, limitations on what and how many guns you can own is not what the NRA and gun lobby would have you believe. NO ONE is going to come grab your hunting rifle or pistol that you keep at home to (ostensibly) protect you. We hear people warn us not to let a camel's nose into the tent on practically every argument. 

Trump should not initiate a restriction on the granting of visitor visas to people from countries hostile to the US because it will lead to concentration camps. "Hitler did not start in 1933 by rounding up" scapegoats.

It's non-sense when the antifa fools say it; it's non-sense when the gun nuts say it.

As Adams writes: 
Banning personal use of grenade launchers did not lead to confiscation of hunting knives, and probably never will. The slippery slope idea inspires fear in gun lovers – because creeping regulations feel like a risk – but in the real world, each decision stands alone. The slippery slope is an irrational fear, not a reasonable factor in policy-making.
If you are a right-wing gun rights supporter, consider this: The next time you feel an  inclination to fall back on the "gun control is going to lead to gun bans," remember how stupid the argument of the leftists is that Trump is Hitler.

That is what you sound like to the rest of us,


Yes, it is.

To those on the left (with whom I generally agree with respect to guns), stop pretending that the real problem with guns in the US is nutty white men with automatic weapons.

Right after Las Vegas, there were memes galore circulating (Shaun King, the one man rent-a-grievance at the New York Daily News tweeted multiple times about how this was yet another case of imagined white privilege) about how the US has some sort of "angry white man" problem at the root of gun violence.

Anyone who pays attention to the data knows that this is pretty much unadulterated bullshit. Slate today had an on-line argument that basically destroys this point, after trolling through the data collected over the past decade by Mother Jones.


Thousands of people do die each year because of gun violence. A tiny percentage is from incidents like Las Vegas, or Columbine, or Aurora. The overwhelming majority of gun killing is done with Saturday Night Specials. Banning "assault" rifles or "bump stocks" feels good, but will have no real impact on the carnage.

Stop rushing to get in front of a camera to propose pointless laws that touch the political erogenous zones of your activist donors, and propose real solutions. Instead of looking to score points, work with sensible people on the other side of the divide to draw up real solutions. Stop opposing programmes (e.g., Stop and Frisk) that actually work to get guns out of the hands of criminals.

If you want to get to sensible answers, you cannot begin from foolish questions.


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