Monday, December 17, 2012

Pick a Number; Any Number

With all the ink that has been spilt on this particular subject in the last three days, it's hard to imagine I'd have anything non-superfluous to contribute to the conversation. And my general disposition to shy away from all things reactionary has led me to be pretty silent on issues surrounding Friday's events - particularly on more sociable public outlets. But I feel like I should at least try to put something together, maybe for my own personal edification. There's quite a bit of disconnect out there. That much is evident from the reactions I've been seeing. And maybe that's par for the course. We need to be compassionate and understanding of the various reactions we're witnessing. But we need to also not let our emotions excessively plague our reason. There are some reactions which really are tasteless, inappropriate, or more importantly just thoughtless. They should not be left unabated.

Most of the reactions seem to be centered around gun-control. This kind of talk spikes every time such an incident occurs. But people seem to be particularly vociferous this time around. Things are publicly mounting in the direction of some kind of new federal legislation.

One of the things I find most disturbing about a lot of what I read from gun-control advocates (and maybe I get this from my father), is that a lot of them are fairly clueless about both firearms and the Second Amendment. Regarding the latter, you see an inordinate amount of people ask why you would need firearms such as X or Y in order to be able to hunt. And, not only that, but they also misconstrue this to be the argument of most firearm advocates - that they are simply vested in reserving the right to hunt or shoot for sport. Now, it's true enough that there are plenty of gun-owners for which this is the extent of their interest. But I'd hesitate to say that particular group is in the majority among them. And, in either case, sport has little or nothing at all to do with the Second Amendment.

Regarding the former, it's clear that a good amount of people don't understand the basic functioning of firearms either. People will gravitate towards the most cosmetic features of particular weapons (black plastic, rails, bayonet slugs, pistol-grips, etc.) and assume these distinctions make a particular difference regarding the deadliness of the weapon. Meanwhile most hunting rifles are functionally indistinguishable. And yet calls to bad guns with particular cosmetic features persist.

Many of these same people will point to magazine capacity as a point of contention - that there's no need for 30-round magazines for self-defense. Of course, this is a claim that is completely dependent on context. But, even if we granted the argument, I would ask what difference they think it would make going from, say, 30-round magazines to a maximum of 10 or 15. If most magazines were fixed, you could almost understand their belief in magazine-capacity as a limiting factor. But most magazines are not fixed. They are detachable. And quickly so. Going from 30 to 15-round capacity simply means that if I want to shoot 30 rounds, I'm going to use two 15-round magazines. Otherwise, functionally, there is little difference that I can see. Swapping a magazine, for any layman, can be done easily in under two seconds. THAT is the difference between a 30-round magazine and a 15-round magazine...a less-than-two-second window after the first fifteen shots. This isn't really prohibitive for the shooter, particularly if there are no armed civilians nearby. There is not some linear correlation between a weapon's killing capacity and it's magazine capacity. The capacity of the standard-issue magazine for the M-16 (an ACTUAL "assault rifle") is NOT one hundred rounds. I assure you, they are nonetheless deadlier.

This leads into another point of contention - this one surrounding terminology. In a lot of arguments, I think deferring to semantics can be a deflection. But, when it comes to this issue, I think the semantic errors really do serve to reinforce certain opinions about gun-control. One term that keeps being repeatedly brought up is "assault rifle." Based on the information I've seen so far, no assault rifles had been used to carry out this crime. And yet the terminology persists. When I hear the echo of, "There's no reason people should be able to own assault rifles!", I want to reply with, "Most Americans think that's a reasonable opinion and they overwhelmingly agree with you...which is why they've been banned for about eighty years now."

"Assault rifle" is a specific term reserved for weapons with a specific functional capability - namely the ability to easily switch between semi-automatic and full-automatic. "Assault rifle" does not mean "any weapon that looks menacing" or "any rifle that looks like an assault rifle." What people are wanting to refer to here is a newer, political, classification of weapons that are aesthetically "assault-rifle-like"...dubbed "assault weapon(s)". Of course, even linguistically, the term is a little silly given that the purpose of weapons, in general, is to "assault". I'm not aware of "non-assault" weapons. Anyways, the point here is that there is confusion over the functional capability of legal firearms under this second category, and incorrectly referencing them using the same terminology as a whole other caste of weapons does not improve our understanding of the situation or make clear what the proper response should be.

This leads into the more general point I want to make about the practical (short-term) problem I see. The solutions I've seen thrown up (that center around gun-control) don't make a lot of sense to me - even if I had no objection to restricting access to firearms on any level. There's nothing about more intense screenings and background checks, limiting magazine capacity, or banning particular aesthetics that would have seemed to make any difference at all in this case. And while I think a lot of people who support these kinds of things mean well, ultimately, I can't help but pour a little bit of derision over the mindset that would allow someone to think that effectively limiting us to "hunting rifles" would really curb incidents like this in any meaningful way. It's as if they believe that the firepower that could take down a buck works by some mystical properties that humans are immune to. I'm not a firearm expert, but I don't find this to be the case. You're not going to be able to de-couple the two without specific reference to function. And, at that point, we're talking about some fairly significant limitations that would need to be imposed (a ban on all non-fixed magazines, outlawing a surplus of more than 3-4 rounds per person, banning semi-automatic weapons altogether, etc.). Short of that, a lot of the suggestions wouldn't effectually amount to much.

Outside of all the specifics about various arguments being made, there's something that's been bothering me in a more general way. In the wake of this senseless act of violence, we feel compelled to demand a "solution." What a solution would be, in its make-up, is something of contention. But what it would mean seems largely agreed on - a cessation of this kind of violence. However, I'm not sure what we mean by "solution" is really as cut-and-dry as it seems. And I'm less certain that it's reasonably attainable. Let me break that down a little bit.

Almost everything we do has some cost associated with it. We balance our needs and wants against the costs and proceed with what seems most acceptable. Sometimes this is done intentionally at the individual level, intentionally at the collective level, or even unintentionally at the collective level through individual actions. But, regardless of their nature, there are trade offs we make for these choices. So, let's detach this from the issue of guns for a moment and ask ourselves, "On the spectrum of mortality, is there an acceptable number of innocent deaths in the cost of ANY of our freedoms?" And, please, don't give a knee-jerk reaction here. Really think about this. Take any of the freedoms we enjoy on a daily basis (explicit or otherwise) - If you knew that, statistically, having such freedoms would likely directly escalate the chance of death for innocent people, what would be the magic number that would be acceptable to you?

Is there such a number? I'm not sure there is. If there is one, we might guess that it would be attached directly to the importance of the thing we're paying the cost for though, right? How important is your right to self-defense? Would you rank that as being pretty important? I would. I think most other people would as well. So, how many deaths are "acceptable" within the confines of us retaining that right? Twenty? Twenty-thousand? Is the right to have a car and to drive to and from work more fundamental than the right to defend yourself? Most would say no, I'd assume. So, what is the magic number of deaths within the acceptable limit with regards to us having the right to drive cars? Do you know what that number is? I don't know what it is. But I do know it's more than 30,000 in the United States - because that's how many deaths we suffer from auto-accidents annually, and almost no one thinks we should ban cars.

Our want for the mere convenience (not need) of cars is so great that we're completely OK with having 30,000 human beings kick the bucket because of it every single year. The ratio of vehicular-deaths to gun-deaths in the United States is roughly 3:1. So why the clamor over firearms as opposed to trucks? Here's another sobering thought; if an event just like Friday's massacre happened twice a week for an entire year it still wouldn't come close to the death toll for the largest mass-murder in U.S. history - and that crime was carried out with box cutters. Do we need box cutters? No. Is there some other way we could use shipping boxes without having to use a device capable of cutting a person open? Probably. So why are we OK with it? Why is there no need for a box-cutter lobby?

The only thing I can surmise is that the people in the gun-control crowd see absolutely no use whatsoever in having a firearm. Or, at the very least, they see less usefulness in owning a firearm than owning a box cutter. If that really is the case, that's a hard one for me to chew. At the end of the day, the securing of any and all rights (no matter the conception) is dependent upon an agent's ability to compel others to obey said obligations. In that way, a meaningful right to self-defense is the presupposition of all other rights. It's arguably a constitutive component of the whole concept of rights to begin with. Now, the contours of those rights and their defense is always going to be a source of contention, I'm sure. But that a reasonably compelling (read: lethal) method for securing our individual rights be more important (even if less exercised) than our supposed "right" to box cutters, greasy hamburgers, and Toyota Camry's doesn't seem completely crazy to me. And yet, here we are.

In any case, I'm not trying to circle back around to make this a conversation about rights per se. But, rather, my point was simply to illustrate that there aren't many aspects of our lives that we couldn't make safer (in many cases, much, much safer) if we're willing to bear such opportunity costs. Milton Friedman, in a fairly famous exchange with a college student, brought up this very same idea - in a different context - which seemed to be met with bewilderment. We get a chance to act like purists when something that is bad and of prominence occurs. But it's rarely a question of whether one thing or another is acceptable or unacceptable - it's a question of where we put the goalposts. As Friedman pointed out, certainly Ford could have included the parts in question to make the vehicle safer. But you could continue the same logical argument indefinitely. They could have also added more insulating materials, airbags, driver's caging, and on and on and on creating a safer and more expensive vehicle with each pass until you've turned it into a tank no one could/would use. Each level of that would have a specific amount of risk associated with its hypothetical use. So what magical number of deaths are "OK"?

At the end of the day, I fear the drastic moves that might be made in terms of gun control because I think it belies any rational sense of equality and power enjoined upon the greatest minority - the individual. But I also fear the lesser (half-hearted) measures because I think some may unintentionally lead to worse results. I can't escape a conversation in the public sphere about this without being reminded that my current view is the craziest one - that there may simply be not much we can or should do about this politically. And, yet, that's how I feel. The "we gotta do something(!)" crowd is screaming pretty loud, and they seem content to throw about anything on the fire without checking to see if it's combustible first. So you'll have to pardon my lack of enthusiasm on this one. It looks like if you're not willing to push more God, guns, or government onto other people you've already lost your seat at this particular table.

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