Before I say anything about my nominal topic, there is one thing that I have to emphasize as strongly as possible. You must always remember that a great many people who are very nice and calm and rational and wise in general have specific subjects about which they go batcrap, drool-flecked crazy; and most often these have to do with religion (which category includes Sierra Club environmentalism and the “science” of Neil DeGrasse Tyson) and politics. When you are dealing with a person discussing a political belief about which they feel very very deeply, you are ordinarily NOT actually dealing with the person themselves, but with the amygdala-hijacked personality that only comes out to play when you get onto their triggering subjects. NEVER generalize about a person’s character based on their political beliefs or their regrettable behavior in the defense thereof.
Now, to our topic of the day.
Basically, whenever you hear a person start quoting statistics about “gun violence,” you know that at least one of the following things is true of that person, in the mental state they enter whenever they think about the political issue of gun control.
- They have given very little thought to the matter (which probably shows simply that they make good life choices, as I will explain later on); or…
- …they are either very ignorant or very misinformed; or…
- …they are very stupid; or…
- …they are knowingly dishonest; or…
- …they are the sort of liberal who reacts emotionally to guns the way these no doubt very nice ladies reacted to the Nectar of Satan.
Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours, satirical photograph of teetotaller women, still from c. 1890s movie filmed in Edison’s Black Maria studio
And the reason comes down to a simple application of a general principle in clarity of thought: the statistics that non-idiotic people think are relevant, tell you what they think is important.
Here are the sorts of assertions one gets from many gun-control advocates:
- States and countries with more guns have more gun deaths.
- Where gun-control laws are lax, more people are murdered with guns.
- The stricter the gun-control laws are, the fewer gun suicides there are.
- The more guns you have, the more gun crimes are committed.
And the first two things to notice about all of these assertions is that, firstly, across certain ranges of gun ownership rates, they are not only true but tautological (the invasion of Europe by the Huns, for example, was 100-percent gun-violence-free, making even the Amish be more prone to gun violence than was Attila) – and secondly, that the only people who would rationally be interested in such statistics are people who think that death by gunshot is worse than death by other means, or that a robbery is worse if the robber has a gun (even if nobody gets hurt). The very obvious question that any sane person could be expected to ask when someone says, “But gun control causes gun violence to go down!!” is, “Um…if somebody commits murder, does it really matter whether they use a gun or a Buick?”
In other words, the sorts of questions that any sensible person would naturally be interested in are:
- Is it true that states and countries with more guns have more premature deaths?
- Is it true that where gun-control laws are lax, more people are murdered?
- Is it true that the stricter the gun-control laws are, the fewer suicides there are?
- Is it true that the more guns you have, the more violent crimes are committed?
In order to be interested in gun murders specifically, you have to either be very silly, or else to have some sort of idea that gun murders are worse than other murders. And it is particularly flagrant intellectual malpractice in the case of the issue of gun control, where one of the major arguments in favor of widespread gun ownership is the idea that guns can help reduce all kinds of violence, not just gun violence – and that those who benefit most from gun ownership are those who, being physically weak, are most vulnerable to non-gun violence and who therefore find a gun to be a potentially life-saving equalizer. It is, for example, very odd for people who claim to be opposed to physical abuse of women by violent and vindictive ex-lovers, to be running around quoting statistics about “gun violence” instead of “violence against women.” A single notorious example will suffice.
Consider a case in which a violently and chronically abusive man who is irresistibly physically stronger than his ex-wife or ex-girlfriend, determines to do her harm. This scenario is – ask any battered-women’s advocate – all too common. I will give you two outcomes. One of them is treated as a positive, or at least neutral, outcome in any statistic about “gun violence;” the other is treated by such statistics as a Bad Thing. Ask yourself which one you think is the more desirable outcome.
In the case of the first outcome, while filing for a gun license and starting the ten-day waiting period imposed by her state, the victimized woman takes out a restraining order against the murderously violent ex-husband, in the naïve expectation that restraining orders are actually effective in restraining the sociopathic and the violently misogynistic. Or perhaps she simply starts dating again. Or perhaps she commits Nicole Simpson’s mistake of simply having male friends. The restraining order is served upon the ex-husband, or the ex-husband hears that the victim has started dating, or the ex-husband happens to drive by the park where the victim and her best friend (whom the ex doesn’t realize is gay) are out walking their dogs together. And so that night he shows up at her house and beats her, and perhaps her new friend, to death with a tire iron, or maybe he, oh I don’t know, say, stabs the two of them to death with a knife.
In the case of the second outcome, the battered woman in question, having a realistic view of her ex-husband’s mental state and of the limitations of the police force’s protective capacities, takes the precaution of acquiring a handgun and learning how to use it before restarting her dating life and filing the restraining order. And when her world-class-athlete ex-husband shows up at her house and comes at her with a knife, she shoots him and kills him.
Now, I think any sane person would prefer the second outcome to the first. But as measured by any “gun violence” statistic, the second case is a bad outcome: a gun death has occurred. Look! Proof that gun ownership is bad! Meanwhile the first case is a good outcome: a potential gun death (namely, that of the murderous misogynist whose victim’s gun-purchase waiting period had not expired) has been avoided by stringent gun-control laws. Now don’t start throwing howling fits about how this is unfair: this is how the statistic actually behaves.
Put it this way: the ordinary decent person thinks that the most important clarifying question to ask when somebody dies violently is, “Was it a good guy or a bad guy that died?” That is, there is a major difference between the death of a serial killer who is slain by a heroic police officer, and the death of an innocent person at the hands of a murderer; but no real difference at all (to the ordinary decent person) whether the dead man died from a knife wound or a gunshot wound. And if the character of the deceased is what matters to you, then when you set out to find statistics to inform yourself about the impact of widespread private gun ownership, it won’t be “gun deaths” you’ll be interested in. You’ll start with information about violent and accidental deaths, and then you will rule out deaths in cases of legitimate self-defense. You’ll distinguish between accidental deaths, suicides, deaths in which one bad guy kills another (a quite high percentage of murder victims in the United States are violent criminals killed by other violent criminals, especially in the inner cities), deaths in which an innocent person successfully defends himself against a violent criminal, deaths in which an innocent person defends himself against a person whom he mistakenly but understandably thinks is threatening him, deaths in which a criminally negligent person casually shoots a person whom he claimed to feel threatened by because “when that n****r rang my doorbell I naturally assumed he was there to rape my women,” and deliberate homicide of an obviously innocent person. You will use, in other words, statistics that reflect the various moral categories of violent deaths.
Or you can be the kind of person who quotes “gun death” statistics, in which the difference that really matters to YOU (unless you are simply too much of an idiot to understand your own arguments) is the difference between someone who gets shot (quelle horreur!) or somebody who, like the mother of a childhood friend of mine, dies when one of her four baby-daddies runs over her with a car and then drives back and forth across her prone body several times (well at least, thank God, it wasn’t a gun death). Remember, any time you use a statistic about “gun violence,” you are using a statistic that would reward a community in which Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman both die by stabbing (not gun deaths, no worries) and punish a community in which Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman both live to a ripe old age because one of them pulls a gun and shoots O.J. dead (oh my God, another gun death!). And you will be doing this even though one of the major reasons women choose to buy guns, is to protect themselves from violence at the hands of people who are bigger and stronger than they are and who would overcome them in any non-gun fight.
At this point some of you who are in the habit of quoting “gun violence” statistics, and who naturally are feeling defensive and angry at this point, will argue, “But this is ridiculous; the cases in which people shoot bad guys who would have beaten them to death are so few that they are statistically irrelevant – this is a total red herring.” Well, I imagine there’s a good chance you are right…but then, if the cases in which guns are used to prevent violent deaths really are as statistically insignificant as you say, you will get the same results by using “violence” statistics as you will get by using “gun violence” statistics; which naturally leads to the question of why you use gun violence statistics when the ordinary statistics would make your case for you.
In other words, let’s say the world really is the way gun-control advocates seem to think it is. Let’s say that there are a baseline number of violent and accidental deaths that would occur if guns had never been invented, or if only people who worked for the government had guns. And let us say that human nature is such that introducing guns into such a society would not prevent any significant number of violent deaths, because guns would never be used by innocent people to save their lives from murderous people (in other words, you think not only that Kleck and Gertz are wrong in thinking that over a million Americans per year successfully use guns to defend themselves against criminal attempts on their person, but also that the NCVS’s outlier-of-a-lowball estimate of 80,000 per year is grossly overstated – or else that practically none of these self-defenders’ lives were in danger). If that is the case, then you will not need to resort to statistics about gun deaths specifically, because the number of violent deaths in general will go up whenever gun ownership goes up – if your belief is valid, then the statistics about violence in general will validate your belief.
Look, any time you start to quote a statistic in defense of your political position, the first question you should ask is NOT, “Is this statistic accurate?” You should certainly ask that question, but it is only the second question you should ask. The FIRST question you should ask is, “What does my selection of this statistic say about my priorities and my moral value system?” A person who distinguishes between deaths that are cases of legitimate self-defense and deaths that are homicide or negligent manslaughter, thinks that the difference between trying to commit murder and trying to defend yourself against murder is an important difference. A person who distinguishes between gun deaths and knife deaths but doesn’t distinguish between Nicole and O.J.…well, that person has a rather different set of moral priorities.
Take another example. If you are not a racist, then the difference between “person who commits violent crimes” and “person who obeys the law” is a much more important difference than the difference between “person who is black” and “person who is not black.” Therefore, for people who are not racists, a perfect criminal justice system would be one in which all persons guilty of violent crime were caught and punished, and no innocent person was ever convicted. So let us imagine a population composed of equal parts white people, Asians, Hispanics, and black people, but where 90% of crime was committed by white rednecks, 8% by Asians, 1% by Hispanics, and 1% by black people. In that world, the ordinary sane person would hope to see a prison population that was 90% white and only 1% black. And there would be something vile and racist about the criminal justice system if when you went and looked at the prison population, 25% of the people in jail were black and only 25% were white. For that would absolutely have to mean that either lots of white criminals were getting away with their crimes, or else lots of innocent black people were getting convicted.
But if you go and listen to the ordinary liberal talking about how racist our legal system is, nine times out of ten the statistic you will hear is how the racial makeup of the prison population differs from the racial makeup of the population as a whole – in other words, this person is using a statistic that would see the prison with only 1% of black people in it and would cry racism because of the “underrepresentation” of black people (rather than black criminals) and the “overrepresentation” of white people (rather than white criminals). The statistics that are relevant to non-racists – that is, to people who think that the difference between criminal and victim is more important than the difference between black and white – are the comparison of the racial makeup of the prison population to the criminal population, and the comparison of the racial makeup of the walking-around-free population to the law-abiding population: first you classify people by what really matters, which is character, and then only within the character-driven buckets do you sort by race. But to the kind of mind that is permanently obsessed with race, and to whom the first buckets into which people always must be thrown are those defined by race, the comparison of the racial makeup of the prison population to that of the general population is what matters, because the difference between criminal and law-abiding is utterly ignored.
Now the liberal could say here, “But what I am complaining about is the fact that society is racist and that black people are disadvantaged by being raised within a culture of violence.” Well, in the first place, if this is true, then it is not the legal system that is racist; the legal system under the liberal’s hypothesis would simply be responding properly to the regrettable affects of racism in other parts of society. Yet even here, the fact that the liberal chooses the statistic that he chooses does him no credit. I give you, O Gentle Reader, a social experiment that you can use on the next college student you encounter who is ranting about the racism inherent in our legal system (if, that is, you do not feel that you are desperately in need of said young person’s friendship). You very politely observe, if the young genius ever pauses for breath, “But is it not true that the black representation of our prison population more or less corresponds to the black crime rate?” You can then expect to hear lots of accusations about what a racist you are, along with a great deal of ranting about how the black crime rate is skewed upward precisely because the legal system arrests and hassels and convicts black men more enthusiastically then white men. You allow this rant to continue until you cease to find it amusing, and then you calmly say, “You misunderstand me. I do not refer to the rate at which black people commit crimes. I refer to the obscenely high rate at which black people report being the victims of crimes. I refer to the fact that in this society black people suffer at the hands of criminals so much more frequently than do the members of any other race. Do you not find that discrepancy outrageous?” Ideally you would have arranged for the young person’s face to be videotaped, in order to savor the look thereon at your leisure.
You really will find that the people who go on and on about the racism of the legal system are emotionally focused so entirely on sympathy for black criminals as compared to white criminals that it practically never seems to cross their minds that someone else might think it more important to focus on sympathy for black crime victims as compared to black criminals. That is, their own thinking is so dominated by race, and so little concerned with character, that it doesn’t even cross their mind that other people might think entirely in terms of character and hardly at all in terms of race. Let us assume that what you are concerned about really is the fact that in our society black people are much more likely to suffer the countless bad effects of growing up in the midst of a crime-ridden society. Well, you can demonstrate this far more effectively by looking at the rates at which black people say, “I have been victimized by crime!” than by looking at the rates at which prosecutors say to black people, “You have committed a crime!” – and you would think that nobody would believe this more than someone who is certain that prosecutors are a bunch of white racists who are constantly running around looking for innocent black people to accuse of crimes. If, therefore, you really are trying to show that society has a problem with racially disparate rates of suffering the effects of growing up surrounded by violence, but your statistic of choice is the racial makeup of persons incarcerated rather than the racial makeup of persons victimized by violence…well, you know, that’s not really the way to make the rest of us think very highly of your intelligence.
It really is simple: people who are not racists, think the important difference is the difference between people who commit crime and people who don’t, and they instinctively select statistics that take that fundamental difference as their point of departure. People who are racists, think the important difference is the difference between people of one race and people of another, and THEY instinctively select statistics that treat race as the only variable that matters. Myself, I don’t know whether the legal system is racist or not; my guess is that it probably is more racist than conservatives like to think and less racist than liberals like to imagine. But what I do know, is that a person whose statistic of choice is one that treats the difference between black and white as critical while treating the difference between criminal and victim as insignificant, is either a racist or a fool.
And so we turn back to the original question, which is what it tells us when a friend, or an acquaintance, or a nephew who has been reading The Daily Kos Guide To Making Thanksgiving Dinner A Living Hell For Your Family Members, throws out some “gun violence” statistic. What you have to imagine is simply this: what would that particular person answer if you asked him why he is using “gun violence” statistics rather than simply “violence” statistics? Much more importantly, if you are yourself in favor of gun control and you have quoted those statistics yourself in the past…why do YOU think you chose to use a statistic that would ignore O.J.’s murder of Nicole and Ronald as being literally not worthy of notice, but would have treated Nicole’s or Ronald’s self-defensive killing of O.J. as being just as undesirable as the murder of a convenience store clerk by a gang-banger?
I think for many of you the answer would probably be, “You know, I just never thought about it.” Which is to say, you have given very little thought to the matter. May I please observe that this is nothing to be ashamed of, and quite possibly is something to admire? The world is full of complicated issues and nobody has time to give careful thought to all of them. Pretty much everybody in the world holds a basket of political views where at most a small number of them have been thought through with some effort, but the majority have just been arrived at more or less casually, because we had other things to spend our time on – such as, for example, playing with our children, or working in a soup kitchen, or making a living. The truth is that for the overwhelmingly majority of us, our political opinions will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on government policy, and therefore the practical value of our putting in effort on the formation of political opinions is more or less the same as the practical value of our playing Call of Duty. (Obviously I think Kant and his categorical imperative provide about as much insight into the moral world as do the Deep Thoughts Of Justin Bieber.) It is practically certain to be true that just about any useful thing you do to improve your own life or those of your immediate friends and neighbors, will do the world more good than spending that time on refining your political opinions would have done – especially since the more thought you have put into your political opinions, the more likely you are to have become conceited about them and to hold in uncharitable contempt those who disagree with you. (Yes, it is quite true that it follows from this that the time I spent writing this blogpost was ill-spent. Put it down to the fact that from time to time my OCD manifests itself in the compulsion to do something like this, and the itch only goes away by scratching.)
Really, I think, “I haven’t thought it about it that much,” is by far the most common reason people use gun violence statistics. Being vaguely liberal by disposition, or having mostly liberal friends, they happen to be in conversations or on websites where somebody is more or less bound to trot out impressive-sounding gun violence statistics. So the next time the subject of gun control comes up, what pops into their heads? Naturally, that totes impressive factoid that the Huffington Post guy used to DESTROY all those NRA types who are too unsophisticated to give proper deference to the opinions of the Huffington Post, namely that The More NRA Bumper Stickers A State Has, The More People Shoot Each Other At Stop Lights. (By the way, I would bet good money that this is actually true.) And when we think of strikingly cool factoids that seem to show we’re right…well, it’s natural to trot them out.
Now what about people who seem to have thought about the problem a LOT (sometimes to the point of obsession) and still use gun-violence statistics? Why do THEY do it? I think by far the most likely explanation is that, in that case, you are dealing with somebody who has an instinctive, emotional antipathy to guns. When you look closely at the arguments gun control advocates use, practically none of them survive rational scrutiny – and yet almost all of them suddenly make sense if you simply grant one additional premise: “There is something emotionally or morally wrong with people who like guns.” In fact the arguments used by gun-control advocates remind me very much of the arguments used by the old Temperance movement. I do not mean to give Prohibitionists too hard a time, though I think their arguments were very foolish arguments and that Prohibition was a catastrophically bad idea. After all, one of the good places to find prohibitionist arguments is in the writings of that noted and vocal Temperance man, Abraham Lincoln. I simply mean to point out that under every Temperance argument you found a combination of very weak or non-existent factual basis, buttressed by a bone-deep emotional conviction that alcohol was itself an Evil Thing – and that is also what you find when dealing with passionate advocates of gun control.
It simply is painfully obvious that a great many liberals – generally very nice people who have the very best of intentions and are at least as intelligent and reasonable as is the average Republican – have pretty much the same emotional reaction to the thought of recreational gun use that the average decent and well-intentioned Baptist minister of the 1950’s would have had to the thought of two men engaging in sodomy. There is a gut-level revulsion against the whole idea.
Take this internet meme from Occupy Democrats:
This is a particularly stupid image. It is patently obvious, for one thing, that the kids on the bottom are happy and the kids on the top are not; but this difference escapes the attention of the person who created the meme. It is glaringly obvious that in the top picture the middle child is one accidentally-pulled trigger away from putting his brother in either the hospital or the morgue, while in the bottom picture everyone is practicing proper gun safety; but this difference escapes the attention of the person who created the meme. It is obvious with only slight reflection that the parents of the children in the bottom picture are almost certainly taking the picture during a family celebration of Christmas morning, while the parents in the top picture either don’t care enough about their children’s safety to put down the camera and take the gun away from the middle kid, or else are not there at all while their children misuse guns in the home; but this difference escapes the attention of the person who created the meme. There is only one difference that the person who created the meme notices: being liberal, he not only notes that the kids on top are black and the kids on the bottom are white, but also assumes that is the only difference that could possibly be worthy of notice. And the reason is that, to him, this is not a juxtaposition between responsible gun use and responsible parenting on the bottom, and dangerous gun use and negligent parenting on the top. To him, the picture on the bottom represents dangerous gun use and irresponsible parenting, because guns themselves are by definition Evil Things. It’s not that they don’t see the parental neglect in the top picture; it’s that what they think they see in the bottom picture is child abuse. When the meme was posted on the Occupy Democrats Facebook page, it was accompanied by this simple comment: “So true – although you should have a problem with BOTH.”
Imagine that you show the following two pictures to noted Temperance evangelist Billy Sunday.
I think you would find he would not see any difference between the obviously irresponsible abuse of alcohol in the upper photo, and the way alcohol is being enjoyed in the lower one. And this is true even though, as a Christian preacher, he doubtless read many times the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where Jesus saves the party by turning seventy gallons or so of water into first-rate wine. What Billy Sunday would have seen was simply, in both pictures, the Nectar Of Satan Working Debauchery. To Mr. Sunday there simply was no such thing as a right and proper use of alcohol. And if Mr. Sunday had had a Facebook page and had posted those two photographs side by side, he would probably have commented, “You should have a problem with BOTH.”
To a very great many liberals, especially life-long coastal urbanites and formerly-small-town social climbers trying very hard to feel superior to the rednecks back home, there is simply no such thing as a right and proper recreational use of guns, the way that there IS a right and proper use of kitchen knives, or of baseball bats, or of cars. So to them – and it is very important for the rest of us to understand this – gun violence really does seem to them, intuitively and self-evidently, to be in a different category from stabbings or assaults with blunt instruments or deliberate runnings-over of ex-wives. I said above that ordinary decent persons use “statistics that reflect the various moral categories of violent deaths.” But to these liberals, that is exactly what they are doing, because the difference between gun violence and other kinds of violence seems to them to be precisely a moral difference. To them, murders with knives and bats and cars are regrettable but largely unavoidable things, because of course you can’t tell people they can’t have knives in their kitchen or play baseball or drive cars. After all, decent people cook and play sports and drive; there’s nothing immoral about owning knives or baseball bats or cars. But gun violence is absolutely unnecessary, because no decent person would even want to own a gun, and people really ought not be allowed to own those Tools of Satan anyway.
[UPDATE, TWO YEARS LATER: Kurt Eichenwald makes explicitly the argument that I said two years ago appeared to underlie the position of most gun control activists. He is, of course, being either rather disingenuous or else rather stupid — the point of these guns is not to murder people; it is to kill them. Whether it is murder or not depends on the specifics of the case. Mr. Eichenwald appears to be under the impression that killing somebody in self-defense is the same thing as murder — since for every person in America who buys a gun in order to murder somebody, there are a hundred who buy guns to protect themselves and their families against bad people. But Mr. Eichenwald was clearly very upset and not functioning rationally so it is probably unfair to demand sense from him in the emotional state he was in when he was tweet-storming. My point is simply that he makes explicit exactly the assumption that I said long ago seemed to be fundamentally necessary in order for gun control arguments to have any pretense to rationality. So I think I can reasonably claim to have done a decent job of trying to understand those guys. Still think they’re wrong, of course…]
There is plenty of room for honest difference, among people who genuinely care about protecting the lives and health of innocent people, about the advisability of gun control. Many reasonable people can be found on both sides of the policy question, and there is much to be learned from each other by candid and mutually respectful discussion.
But there was no point in arguing with Billy Sunday about the Wedding at Cana. There is no point in arguing with Occupy Democrats — or, we now can see in 2017, Kurt Eichenwald — over gun control. And the sooner the rest of us understand and accept that, the less breath we will all waste.
Now, I gave three other possible explanations. Of course you may be dealing with somebody stupid, or with somebody ignorant and misinformed; there is no political opinion under the sun that is not held by large numbers of stupid, ignorant and misinformed people.
And it is true that there are dishonest people out there. As it happens, when you start using simple rates of violence rather than specifically gun violence, the evidence, to put it mildly, does not look nearly so supportive of the gun-control cause (though conservatives who think this evidence gives them a slam dunk are prone to overstating the evidence in their turn). You could write a textbook on abuse of statistics using nothing but the arguments of advocates of gun control, and at least some of the people committing the outrages against sound practice have to be well enough educated to know that they are giving a vigorous, elbow-pumping double bird to factuality and candor. But as statistical training is relatively rare among even college-educated Americans, I think in almost all cases you need not assign to malice and deceit what can be amply accounted for by simple ignorance, thoughtlessness, or cultural chauvinism.
But you should at least make sure that when you yourself introduce statistics into a political discussion, you have first thought about what your choice of statistics will say to the other people in the room.