Politics Archive

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thoughts on Gun Control - New Studies on Effectiveness of Gun Control Laws

Gun ControlOver the past few years, I've written a few times on gun control, starting with the entry, Thoughts on Gun Control, and continuing on with NRA President Unwittingly Supports Gun Ban, Thoughts on Gun Control - The Hitler Argument, and Response to E-mail - Are America's Hunters the World's Largest Army?.

In that first entry, I posed three questions:

  1. Just how dangerous are guns?
  2. Do gun control laws make society safer?
  3. If gun control laws do work, is it a trade-off in personal freedom vs. safety that we're willing to make?

To the first of those questions, I found that "guns are used to commit homicides twice as often as other methods, but those homicides account for less than 1% of the deaths in the U.S. per year." To the second question, I couldn't find much data. On the third, I wasn't willing to commit without having better input on whether or not gun control laws improved safety.

Well, since that time, I've done a bit more research. One of the articles I found recently I should have known about back then, but some of the others are new. Below are links to three relevant articles describing research into guns, along with a short excerpt from each article.

But before I list those, since I know not everybody is going to read my old entries, let me state that I'm not too concerned with the Second Amendment in these discussions. For one, I disagree with the current interpretation of the amendment. I think it was intended mainly for state militias, not private gun ownership (for a good discussion of this, see the article by Garry Willis, To Keep and Bear Arms). For another, the Constitution isn't scripture, and the Founding Fathers weren't infallible (keep in mind that when the Constitution was written, women couldn't vote, and slavery was legal). If we as a society decided to, we could modify the Constitution with a new amendment. So, if there are good reasons for or against gun control, they should be judged on their own merits. Anyway, on to the articles...

BBC - Missouri gun murders 'rose after law repeal'

Reporting soon in the Journal of Urban Health, the researchers will say that the repeal resulted in an immediate spike in gun violence and murders.

The study links the abandonment of the background check to an additional 60 or so murders occurring per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012.

"Coincident exactly with the policy change, there was an immediate upward trajectory to the homicide rates in Missouri," said Prof Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

"That upward trajectory did not happen with homicides that did not involve guns; it did not occur to any neighbouring state; the national trend was doing the opposite - it was trending downward; and it was not specific to one or two localities - it was, for the most part, state-wide," he told BBC News.

Penn Medicine - Penn Study Asks, Protection or Peril? Gun Possession of Questionable Value in an Assault

In a first-of its-kind study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. The study estimated that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

This last article may seem a bit amusing at first, but it's one of the scenarios that I always would have thought justified carrying a gun.

Anchorage Daily News - Gun is no insurance policy in bear attack, study indicates

Longtime bear biologist Tom Smith and colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of close-quarter bear-human conflict in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 in which a firearm was involved. They found the gun made no statistical difference in the outcome of these encounters, which resulted in 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities.

While I don't think a handful of studies are enough to definitively state that gun control laws are effective, I think all indications are going that way. The first study above indicates that gun control laws do help to reduce murder rates, while the other two articles indicate that on average, guns aren't terribly effective for self defense. In fact, when you're the victim of an assault, you're more likely to be shot if you have a gun yourself. My suspicion is that pulling out your own gun escalates the violence. As far as the bear study, I think most people just don't have the training to effectively use guns in high stress situations (whether it's an attack by a bear or a criminal).

So, now I must return to that third question from my previous entry, are gun control laws a trade-off in personal freedom vs. safety that we're willing to make?

In that first entry, I discussed three anecdotes of people I know of personally* who have been involved in situations with gun violence - a man who successfully defended his home against a drug addict; a teenager without a gun who confronted burglars with guns, resulting in his being knocked out but not shot; and a man who got caught up in drug related violence and successfully defended himself against several attackers. It's situations like that first scenario that make it so difficult to make the extreme argument that guns should be banned. Had that man not had a gun, who knows what would have happened to him and his family. However, it appears that he was the exception and not the rule. In most cases, having a gun yourself increases your likelihood of being injured.

Of course, there is a vast gulf between the extreme positions of gun bans and the wild west. There already are a certain amount of gun control laws - you can't carry concealed weapons without a permit, certain types of weapons (like fully automatic rifles) are already prohibited. And while it's not exactly a requirement of gun ownership, most states have training requirements to get a hunting license. And those hunter safety courses, along with other regulations aimed at improving hunting safety, have worked. Go read the article from Lancaster Online, Pennsylvania hunters take aim at each other less in 2012, or the press release from the International Hunter Education Association, Hunting - "Safe and Getting Safer". To quote a portion of that second link:

Fast forward to today, some 65 years later, and you find that hunting incident rates are at their lowest in the history of documenting outdoor injuries/fatalities. In large measure, the system of hunter safety education coursework required in every state can take credit for such a significant reduction -- yet another conservation benefit provided for by hunters -- in this case, policing their own behaviors and actions afield.

So, since stricter gun control laws do seem to improve societal safety, and considering the example of mandatory training improving gun safety with hunters, I think I'm coming around to the idea of stricter gun control laws, so long as long as they don't present unreasonable obstacles for upstanding citizens to obtain guns**. At the very least, I think handguns should require a permit, and that mandatory training/safety courses should have to be completed in order to receive the permit (and presumably passing some type of testing at the end of that training), along with some type of background check. All sales of handguns would require that the seller confirmed that the buyer had a valid permit. Considering that we already require driver's licenses to operate motor vehicles, I don't think it's asking too much to require a permit to own a machine built with the primary purpose of killing other people***. It would be really nice to see mandatory recurrent training or at least renewing the permit by passing a test every so often, but I'm not sure if that would have the same cost to benefit ratio as simply implementing permits.

Now, as far as long guns - rifles and shotguns, I'm not so sure on what to do about them. They don't seem to be used anywhere near as much in violent crime. But if I had my druthers, I'd still like to see mandatory training and permits, but perhaps not as extensive as for handguns.

Anyway, in the current political climate in this country, I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell that any of this will actually happen anytime soon. If the Sandy Hook tragedy couldn't galvanize the nation into doing something about gun violence, I don't know what could. But perhaps in a few years there will be more studies to better quantify the effects of different gun control strategies, and maybe then people will begin to see things differently.****


*Know of, not know. One was the father of a friend, another was a neighbor's son, and another was a neighbor of a relative.

**I must admit, though, that situations as described in the article, Armed protesters rattle Texas moms' gun-control meeting, make me far less sympathetic to guns rights groups. When a bunch of yahoos can show up in a parking and threaten a group of moms, and the police can't do anything about it because no laws were broken, it makes you think that maybe some new laws should be put in place.

***Yes, I know. Some people take their handguns to ranges for target practice. But most people I know who do that with handguns are doing it primarily as training in case they ever have to use the guns in defense. Of course, riles and shotguns are used much more for purely recreational purposes.

****Or maybe, future studies might contradict the ones I referenced above, and find different strategies to address gun violence that don't require gun control. But I wouldn't hold my breath on that.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Politicians Interfering in Business - VW and the UAW

VW & UAW LogosPolitics just baffles me sometimes. Consider this story I heard on NPR yesterday, Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Vote On UAW Membership. The gist of it is that the workers at a VW manufacturing plant are preparing to vote on whether or not to unionize (actually, they were preparing when the story was filed - they're in the midst of a 3 day vote right now). While some companies certainly would rather not have unionized labor, VW has remained relatively neutral. According to the NPR story:

Usually car companies do all they can within the law to keep unions out. Volkswagen, though, has taken a neutral position. German officials say they're accustomed to cooperating with labor groups in the rest of the world.

It seems like it should be a pretty minor story to me. A company and its workers are both in agreement that the workers should have the choice on whether or not to take a certain course of action, and none of the parties involved seem like they would be particularly upset about either outcome.

But of course, I'm writing a blog entry about it, so there has to be more to the story. Republican lawmakers in Tennessee don't particularly like unions, and have made it clear that they do not want the plant to unionize. Here's another quote from the NPR article, describing state senator Bo Watson's stance.

Taxpayers provided a half-billion dollars when Volkswagen built its plant.

And if workers want help expanding, Watson says they can forget about it with the UAW. This is a pretty timely threat since Volkswagen is now shopping for somewhere to build a new SUV.

WATSON: I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.

Republicans usually try to present themselves as the party supporting free markets and limited government. But first, they provided incentives to lure VW to their state (not that I'm particularly opposed to incentives, but they're definitely not free market). And then, in an internal issue between the company and its employees, the lawmakers are trying to interfere to make the company run the way those lawmakers want it run.

Well, I should admit I'm not particularly baffled like I said I was up top. While Reublicans like to present themselves as supporting free markets and limited government, I long ago realized that that was just their desired image, and not supported by their actions. As this episode illustrates, they're perfectly happy with government interference when it supports their goals.

Image Source: Combined images from CarType.com & LogoTypes 101

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Virginia's New Strenghts & Weaknesses Bill

Evolutionary TreeThere's a recent article at the Daily Beast, Creationism's Latest Trojan Horse Edges Toward Virginia Schools by Karl Giberson. The tagline is as follows.

After years on the defensive, opponents of evolution and climate change are learning that subtle language may be the ticket to sabotaging science education in public schools.

The article is very good, and this entry would be worth doing if only to alert readers to that article and urge them to read it. It contains one of the best short summaries I've seen of the creationism movement in this country. Aside from the excellent the history, Giberson described the current issue in Virginia, where the state legislature is attempting a tactic that's become familiar to those of us who follow the evolution/creation confrontation:

America's whack-a-mole debate about evolution in the public schools has reappeared in Virginia, where state assembly has proposed legislation to modify curriculum to include study of the "scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." If the anti-evolutionists get their way, Virginia elementary and secondary schools will have to develop new curricula that explores the weaknesses of evolution, a strategy intended to make room for alternative theories of origins.

I've written about this strengths and limitations tactic before concerning Texas. While it sounds noble in theory, in practice it's used in an attempt to smuggle creationist nonsense into the classroom.

So, at this point, I could be done with this entry. But I've gone and caught another case of SIWOTI syndrome. Reading through the comments to the article (yes, I know I shouldn't do that), I came across one that I wanted to reply to. But for some reason, the comment won't go through. So, to get it off my chest, I'm going to post the comment here.

Here's the portion of the comment that motivated me to respond.

Mr. Giberson's historical (and biased) rendering of the Creationist/ID movement did nothing to support his assertion that adding a module or two on the weaknesses of evolution would somehow lead to teaching creationism is the classroom.

My intended response is as follows.

This conversation is full of examples of why the people who support science are worried about language like this. You yourself pulled out the old canard of, "And yes, it is only a theory." Someone else brought up the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Someone else used a God of the Gaps argument ("I also think teaching about a potential intelligent designer as possible future theories of things we don't have answers too, or even things we do, are as plausible.") Another person tried to connect evolutionary with the origin of the entire universe ("The bottom line is that the Theory of evolution says everything came to being because of an explosion.") Someone else would call into question all non-laboratory science ("Because it is incapable of being reproduced and tested in a laboratory setting because the time frames involved are beyond human ability to observe."), as if astronomy wasn't a science because you can't put stars in the lab. Someone else brought up a (rather silly) argument from consequences ("Based upon this logic the holocaust was acceptable because there were laws which supported it."), and another person brought in the related is/ought fallacy ("Why do you keep shoving the theory that our children are from apes and then you wonder why they act like one.") These are the reasons why the science proponents are worried, that bogus 'weaknesses' like these will be taught to students, not legitimate scientific debates.

And while the Virginia bill doesn't specifically call out any particular area of science, when similar language has been proposed in other states, it has. For example, Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 included the phrase, "including evolution, global warming, the chemical origin of life, and human cloning," and Oklahoma's HB 1551 included the wording, "analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." These bills aren't about open inquiry, urging students to question everything. They're calling out a few specific fields of science that some groups don't like. Nobody would be so naive as to think Virginia is operating in a vacuum, and that the politicians introducing this bill haven't been influenced by the politicians introducing similar bills in other states.

For a bit of extra info, here are a few links. The first is more information on the legislation for states outside Virginia. The second is an index of handy explanations of the flaws in many standard creationist claims. The third is an entry I did a few years ago concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Hopefully, voices of reason will prevail in Virginia, and this backhanded attempt at indoctrinating children into creationism will fail.

Updated 2014-01-30: Updated a typo - it's the Daily Beast, not the Daily Best.

Monday, December 9, 2013

War on Christmas 2013

Santa in the CrosshairsChristmas is only two weeks away, so it's time to ramp up my efforts in the War on Christmas. To tell the truth, the whole idea of the war is a bit silly, considering all the ways Christmas has been dealt with in this country's past, from the Puritans outlawing it, to some cities treating it "like a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras" (see first link below). I've written a few blog entries on Christmas over the years, so I'll just provide links to those below. The first three are especially good for actually being informative.

My previous War on Christmas posts:

But I really do like Christmas. We've already put up the tree, decorated the front yard, and gotten most of the decorations up in the house, and we'll visit with family, excange presents, and celebrate on Christmas Day. We do pretty much all the normal traditions other than go to church. So, ignoring the 'war', here are a couple more Christmas posts.

My positive Christmas posts:

And as has become my annual tradition for this site, here is Tim Minchin singing his secular Christmas carol, White Wine In the Sun. And just in case you missed the link above, if you buy the song from iTunes this month, the proceeds will go to the National Autistic Society.


Related Links to Other Sites (the first is serious, the rest are humorous):

Monday, November 18, 2013

Response to E-mail - Are America's Hunters the World's Largest Army?

Red Dawn Video CoverI received another interesting e-mail, this one claiming that America's hunters comprise the world's largest army. Here's the closing paragraph, which is the main point of the whole thing.

Overall it's true, so if we disregard some assumptions that hunters don't possess the same skills as soldiers, the question would still remain, what army of 2 million would want to face 30, 40, 50 million armed citizens? For the sake of our freedom, don't ever allow gun control or confiscation of guns.

Apparently, this one's been making the rounds for a while. Here's one example of it online, Fox Nation - American Hunters - The World's Largest Army. As a bonus, you can find an example of treason as the very first comment on that site, though I'm sure the commenter would claim it was meant as a joke (and what's with all these people who claim to be patriots with one breath, and then issue threats against the nation with the next?). For anyone interested in reading the entirety of the version I received, I've put it below the fold.

Now, I grew up in hunting areas. Had I stayed in Pennsylvania for high school, the first day of deer season would have been a day off. In Maryland, in one of my first period high school classes, the kid next to me was always telling me how he'd had to hide his rifle in his truck because he'd forgotten to take it out after going to check his traps in the morning. My dad, brothers, and uncles all used to hunt in our backyard and at my grandmother's property. I have no problem with people hunting.

But the big problem that this e-mail only briefly pays lip service to is that giving somebody a gun doesn't automatically turn them into a soldier. It's insulting to all the actual soldiers in our armed forces to suggest that it does. The U.S. has one of the best trained militaries in the world, and it's this hard work of training and constant drilling that in large part makes our military so effective, not the shear number of guns.

A group of hunters doesn't even rate as a militia - at least militias have some training and drills. Back in the late 1700's when more people actually took the 'well regulated militia' clause to mean a duty of all citizens and not something fulfilled by the National Guard, the government passed the Militia Act of 1792. This act actually called for "each and every free able-bodied white male citizen" between 18 and 45 to be enrolled in the militia. The law even called for musters for some type of training for the militia. In practice, this ended up being once or twice a year. But this minimal training (still more than today's hunters) was completely inadequate. When these militias were put to the test in the War of 1812, they didn't fare well at all. To quote from the first link below, "When war came, the under-trained under-equipped and unready enrolled militia simply was not up to the task. The War of 1812 revealed the weakness of relying upon this unwieldy concept, despite many exceptional and heroic individual successes." And that failure came before the industrial revolution. Just imagine how ineffective private citizens with hunting rifles and shotguns would be against mechanized infantry or attack helicopters.


For comparison, in modern first world nations, Switzerland has the most famous citizen militia. But they get 18 to 21 weeks of initial basic training when they first join the country's militia, followed by annual 3 week refresher courses.


As far as the facts of hunting safety - hunting is fairly safe, but this e-mail is a little exagerrated. Around 1000 people per year are shot in hunting accidents in the U.S. and Canada, but thanks to increased regulations and improved mandatory hunter safety courses, it's getting better. In fact, 2012 was the first year in Pennsylvania in 94 years of records that no hunters were fatally wounded in an accidental hunting shooting (though there were still 33 people shot).


Regular readers may already know that my interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn't line up with the current Supreme Court's. I think the 'well regulated militia' clause makes the intent clear, and that the militia is currently fulfilled by the National Guard. Further, I'm tempted to agree with what the Court said way back in 1876 in United States v. Cruikshank, "The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government," or in other words, that the Second Amendment only applied to the federal government, not states. But, times change and interpretation of the Constitution is fluid, so if the current Court wants to reinterpret it, their new interpretation is now the law of the land. But, even if the older interpretation held and the Second Amendment didn't apply to states, I still think there are many legitimate reasons for people to own guns, hunting being high among those reasons. But I don't agree with this e-mail that private citizens come anywhere close to the well regulated militia described in the Amendment, nor that they would provide any substantial defense or deterrence if a modern military were to attack the U.S.

Image Source: IMBD

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