Take A Load Off

Homicide Stats Barchart
On the face of it, there’s a strong correlation between gun availability and homicide rates. Click for sources and more detailed statistics

Well I might have expected that would get a reaction… In brief, yesterday I argued that the genie is out of the bottle on US gun control and the only way to reduce shooting sprees is to end the easy availability of  ammunition.

I may as well have said it would be more sensible for everyone to go round without pants.

Mostly the comments turned up in more private forums like Facebook, so I will edit for anonymity – as well as to make things flow a little more conversationally. I think we covered some pros and cons of the idea in worthwhile detail though, and I’d like to bring that to you. Especially as coincidentally (I hope) it’s a year today since the Norwegian massacre.

As a means to the end of controlling the supply I suggested people be required to return empty shell cases when they purchase fresh ammunition.

(For no clear reason, I’m referring to commenters as “callers”.)

Caller A – I am afraid you’re ignoring both the ready availability of ammo, at least in common calibers, and the availability of load-your-own technology.

Caller B – And that shell casings aren’t always recoverable, especially small caliber ones like .22. They don’t land neatly in a pile when you eject them, and where people hunt or target shoot in rural areas, there are tall grass and brush and gullies and so on.

Actually I am taking this into account. Yes, people who already have large amounts of ammunition would be able to bypass the system by refilling it. It’s not really relevant because they could achieve the same end more simply by only ever purchasing their legal quota at any one time. This measure in itself isn’t aimed at taking excess or illegal ammunition out of circulation, (though be accounting for all that is held legally, it would help to that end), but at stymieing people who decide they’re going to need a really large amount of ammunition quickly.

Caller B, there would need to be some leeway for attrition as you point out. Obviously shell cases are far more likely to be lost during actual hunting than range firing, so some evidence that hunting took place might be required – perhaps witnesses. Alternatively there are spent case catcher devices available for some types of weapon. [I see that as an issue of fine-tuning legislation, rather than a problem with the principle.]

Caller B – I realize you’re trying to address a current issue but there are already means of taking guns away from people who shouldn’t have them. And this is a state level issue as well. The Constitution is federal but each state determines the level of gun control (what kind, open carry, concealed, etc), and a county might have broad discretion depending on what judge is signing your pistol permit.

There are already laws in place where you can remove guns from people who should no longer have them, for example federal law prohibits gun ownership by anyone subject to an order of protection, or convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. State law prohibits ownership by convicted felons, certain misdemeanors, those found to have a drug/alcohol problem, those with certain mental illnesses, etc. Guns can safely be removed from people, too, and are all the time. It’s not like every gun owner comes to the door locked and loaded. You’re making a jump to an extreme situation without considering all the existing laws and details that would prevent that.

Sometimes, tragically, people who shouldn’t have guns get them anyway. Bad things happen. That does not mean the system is entirely broken and extreme action needs to be taken. It may mean parts of other systems are broken, like that which supports and identifies people with serious mental illness or drug problems.

I question if these other parts of the system can be really fixed – if we’ll ever be able to reliably identify people likely to go insane and start shooting before the fact. Not at least without incredibly intrusive and illiberal measures. My idea is off the top of my head and sure to have its faults, but I think it’s really not so extreme. I’m working on the assumption that current gun ownership controls are indeed fairly comprehensive, and that extending them would come at huge political cost for very little effect. My thinking is that the only measure likely to reduce spontaneous acts of mass murder, carried out as is so often the case by people previously unknown to law enforcement, is to put a severe kink in the amount of ammunition you can obtain at short notice.

(And it could be argued too that as a matter of interstate commerce, the ammunition supply is clearly the purlieu of federal government.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should be restricted to a day’s supply or whatever. Individuals in good standing – this might be a matter for local law – with established sports or even security needs (and the facilities to hold it securely) might be licensed to keep considerably more.

The idea is intrusive to a degree, yes. There would have to be searches occasionally, if there were grounds to suspect people were hiding ammo. It makes the amount of ammunition in a person’s possession a matter of public interest. But (a) perhaps it should be and (b), I think this would be seriously less intrusive than any other possible pre-emptive measure.

Caller B – So you’re OK with being intrusive on people buying ammo in some arbitrary amount somebody considers excessive, but not OK with being intrusive on people with mental illness?

Yes. Because it would be an incredibly intrusive process to find out who was mentally ill. Especially in a way that could actually identify those liable to murder, if that were even possible. Not to mention the enormous problems it raises around the presumption of innocence. Regulating how much ammunition an already-licensed gun owner possesses is hardly comparable.

Caller BI think the system that treats mentally ill persons can be fixed IF (and only if) we put the money into it that it deserves.

Also: possibly, just possibly, we can’t make perfect systems for anything. Possibly, sometimes, tragedies happen and there was nothing that could have been done to prevent that. A person hell bent on mass murder will find a way to accomplish his goals. A person hell bent on suicide will find a way to do that. I’m not saying I don’t value people’s lives but band-aid solutions that affect everyone don’t actually solve the underlying problems that individual desperate or violent people have. I simply don’t think that a law restricting ammo purchases or possession is going to stop anyone. One brick of .22 ammo–the standard box size–has about 500 rounds in it. One box of .40 cal has 50 rounds. One box is all it would take to kill 50 people, if I’m a good shot.

I think the argument that some people will kill or commit suicide no matter what you do is invalid. Yes they will – but the harder the means are to come by, the less likely they are to attempt or to succeed at mass murder. Explosives and (the ammunition for) firearms are the surest means to killing a lot of random people. It isn’t seen as problematic to put some fairly steep restrictions on access to explosives.

Caller A – I also have a minor unrelated quibble with charts that one occasionally sees comparing gun deaths in different countries and in the US. The other countries usually include ex Canada, but I’d like to see them include places like South Africa and Brazil. I don’t think Americans are the shootin’est people out there, and it’s not because we can’t get guns. Similarly, pro-gun freedom types like to look at the UK, which has a higher overall violent crime rate (unless they fibbed about that, would have to look). They use this to argue that gun laws don’t prevent violence. To me, it argues that prevalence of violence is socially and culturally based. I shudder to think what a Saturday night in Glasgow would be like if everyone had a concealed handgun.

I have heard the argument that there’s a higher violent crime rate in the UK than the US, but I am extremely dubious – especially in the light of these figures, which put the US murder rate at over four times the UK one. I suspect it’s the result of different definitions being used. If there is anything in it at all, it may be that there are higher rates in the UK for violent crimes other than homicide – simply because the chances of surviving an assault not involving a gun are much better!

The US is definitely not the shootin’est place in the world, not by a considerable distance, so that is one thing to get in perspective. China and Venezuela are quite comparable. Brazil and South Africa have far, far higher murder rates. Jamaica is just insane. But are these comparable countries? Placed alongside other wealthy democracies where the rule of law runs and there is no serious internal security issue, the US is roughly twice as murderous as its nearest rival (which is, oddly, Luxembourg). Twice. And if, as above, we compare it to the countries most of us are familiar with, that are arguably the most similar in cultural values, the murder rate is strikingly higher in the US. This seems to correlate very strongly with the civilian gun possession rate.

Interestingly though, it doesn’t seem to account for all of it. There are two non-gun homicides per 100,000 people in the US, compared to about one in the other English-speaking countries. Americans are therefore more likely to commit murder in general, for reasons we might go into some other time. This muddies the picture somewhat, but it remains clear that this is only one part of a much larger difference in homicide rates. It seems indisputable then that American murder would be reduced if guns – or as I argue, ammunition – were less readily available.

What To Do About Guns?

President Obama will have to act on gun control – and fast. Otherwise it becomes an election issue, and the Republicans can say that he is going to take everyone’s guns away. Or make everyone carry Gay, pink guns with feathers and sequins on them. Or that only Muslims will be allowed guns. Or that anyone with a gun will have to donate their organs to illegal immigrants while they’re still alive. Anything, really. It’s perfect for them. Mad stuff like him being a Muslim Kenyan will only be believed by people who, let’s face it, weren’t going to vote for him anyway because he’s Black. But the Republicans can say “Well we know he has to do something with your guns. And he hasn’t said what. So obviously it’s going to be worse than you can even imagine.” He needs a policy, now.

But as I said yesterday, how do you control the gun ownership of people who have guns? Well yes, if it came down to it and if the Supreme Court – or a new Amendment – allowed, you could take their weapons off them. The theory that a personal stash of assault rifles guarantees liberty can de refuted with one word: Airstrikes. That’s not to say that a few gun-rebels wouldn’t be able to hold out for years and years in a campaign against government; guerilla warfare is tough and America is a big place. But the vast majority would be defeated easily, the remainder only as free as anyone in hiding can be free.

Of course no one wants another American Civil War. Well OK some people do, but even they want one they can win this time. Nobody wants to see the US descend into armed conflict to protect people from the dangers of guns. Except seriously big fans of irony. There has to be a safer way to lower the danger level. Confiscating legally-purchased weapons would be hugely difficult politically and certain to lead to fatal incidents. But there is a way to mitigate the harm that can be done with them:

Limit the supply of ammunition.

Restrict not the amount you can buy, but that you can possess. Have people bring back spent cartridge cases to show they’re not stockpiling. If they want to lay in more supplies than might be needed for a normal hunting expedition, have them produce an annually-renewable certificate of mental quietude. Give them that Voight-Kampff human empathy test. Have them say why.

It won’t stop all the nuts, no. The survivalists and paranoids and “patriots” will smuggle ammo, buy it from criminals on the black market, even manufacture their own cartridges in secret factories. It will be far from perfect. But it will make it significantly harder for a disturbed person to tool up the moment they feel a delusion coming on.