Gun Control

A friend of mine recently brought up the issue of gun control, about which I have several things to say.  I felt the urge to write about it, and a quick search reveals that I've never actually explained my position on this blog.  So here it is.

First, the exposition of my position:

  1. People should be allowed to own guns.  As many as they want, as deadly as they want.
  2. It is reasonable (and wise) to train/license these individuals before they own such weapons. Several tiers of licenses may be appropriate.
  3. There should be very, very strict penalties applied to crimes committed with guns (or, really, any weapons). Even an attempted crime.  Even an ostensibly accidental crime.  One of these penalties should be that you are not allowed to own a weapon again.  Ever.
  4. There should be very strict penalties for allowing your weapons to be used (by others) in crimes.  It's up to you to ensure they never are. One of these penalties should be that you are not allowed to own a weapon again.  Ever.
I am not going to make the Constitutional argument.  While I think it's a fine document, I'm going out on a sacrilegious limb and saying that the Constitution should not be the end-all, be-all of legislation.  It was written 200 years ago.  Things change.

I think my stance boils down to two core beliefs.  I am of the opinion that personal freedom should be the default stance. Namely, a person has a right to own a weapon. Secondly, preventive legislation is almost always a mistake. This is related to the first belief, but slightly different.

A few logical questions arise at this point.  First, where does the line get drawn?  Should I be allowed to own a bomb? A tank?  A nuke!?  A mortar?  A flamethrower? I don't know.  I agree that there should be a line somewhere, and that it has something to do with the risks involved (of accidents). But, for now, we're talking about guns... and I don't know of a gun that should be outlawed.

The second question is what I really came here to write about.  The opinion that, for example, assault rifles are designed to kill.  I've often heard this argument: if a gun is specifically made to kill people, why should anyone own it?

I'll admit it's a good question.  I'm tempted to address this concern by saying that the design of something shouldn't affect the legality of it, but I don't think that's going to convince anyone.  It's an opinion.

Instead, what I want to suggest to these people is that they're focused on the wrong thing.

First, there is media bias to consider.  The people who make these arguments are probably all people who aren't "into guns", so their only real exposure to them is through the media. And thanks to the whole "if it bleeds, it leads" thang, by and large their exposure is based on people being killed by assault rifles in mass-murders.  Usually, it seems, perpetrated by children.  In schools.  Against other children.

So here's what I suggest: what you want is not a ban on guns.  What you want is to prevent mass murders.  You see assault rifles as a perfect tool for this crime, and a tool that seems ill-fit for any other job than mass murder.

...And you're willing to sacrifice a personal freedom--one that you would never elect to take anyway, conveniently--to help prevent these crimes.

To this I say: noble purpose!  ...But, I fear, misguided.

I think the guns used in these crimes are a convenient and iconic target for your ire. I think that your perception of the people from whom you deem fit to strip these freedoms are not people you hold in a positive light.  Who cares if some hick asshole can't buy one more gun that was really made for killing people, anyway?  Boo-frikkin-hoo.  I can understand this point of view!

I just don't feel it's enlightened.  Or, really, right.

I'll say again: I think the ultimate goal of stopping mass-murder is a noble one.  And I'd love to have some intelligent people spend some amount of time analyzing what might have been most effective in identifying this risk and intervening.  But until I see demonstrable proof that outlawing assault rifles (or, worse, guns in general) is going to have a dramatic effect on the number and/or severity of these crimes, I remain skeptical.

And while I'm skeptical, I stick to my [resists the urge to use a pun] position on the subject:
  • Personal freedom should be the default stance. Even if it's not a freedom I elect to use.  Even if the people who use it are people I don't generally like.
  • Preventive legislation is almost always a mistake. Until it can be clearly demonstrated that it makes a profound difference, it is not worth removing people's personal freedoms.  It is better, to my mind, to rely on people being accountable for their actions.  ...Even if that action involves forgetting to lock their gun chest.
Anyway.  I don't really mean to pick a fight.  I just wanted to get my thoughts down on paper. to speak.  I also wanted people to know that I've thought about the subject and made what I think is a fairly rational decision, whether you disagree with it or not.

In closing, I'll just point out, if it isn't clear already that I don't own a gun.  In fact, I've never even held one, let alone shot one.

That said, I don't have a problem with people who own guns.  ...I have plenty of friends with large numbers of guns, and they are good people.  I think it's a common mistake to think that gun-owners are universally (or even mostly) assholes.

As a last thought, I'll extend that a bit: I think a majority of people's political opinions are governed by the types of friends they've made.  This is (demonstrably) why city-folk tend to be more liberal: they usually have more types of friends.

On the Tedium of Being a Scientist (or Skeptic, at least)

Over the past three years, I have really tried to "up" my level of rational thinking.  My skepticism. I've taken the stance that conjecture is nearly worthless; taking action without solid evidence of its efficacy is generally wasteful.  Assumptions are almost always a mistake.

Note, there are some exceptions that would detract from the point if enumerated.

The inescapable problem with this attitude is tedium.

When someone asks you whether to use "which" or "that" in a sentence, you have to look it up.  When you complain that something isn't working the way you expected, and someone suggests how to fix it, you question whether that's a legitimate solution.  ...And if you eventually decide to "just try it", and it works, you're never satisfied that it wasn't just coincidence. When people ask interesting but less-relevant questions during decision-making meetings, you call them on information bias.

You spend inordinate amounts of time researching decisions, refining processes, and measuring progress.

You can't listen to any mass media, because it's so chock full of unverified, rushed assertions, presuppositions of guilt, and contextual bias.  You can't read opinion pieces, because they are so lop-sided and single-minded. You spend some amount of time after any serious discussion looking up the other participant's claims. You discount people's stories because they are "anecdotal".

When someone asks you to confirm something you're "pretty sure of", you take the time to look it up again anyway, because you know memory is fallible. You question your decisions, because you're aware of confirmation bias.  You refuse to make relative distinctions because of the contrast effect.

In short, your entire life comes into question.  Everything progresses more slowly, because of your perpetual uncertainty.  All in all, what you might have shrugged off and just did all become long processes with multiple steps.

The worst part about it, of course, is that there is no turning back.  Ever.  Because now you know that those old behaviors were wrong.  Simple, biased action is rooted in falsehoods. Now you're on the path of "truth"--or some reasonable epistemological approximation of it. Nothing less is even worth considering.  It's just wrong. Not. An. Option.

But it's hard.  : (