Wed, Jun

The Last Word On Guns


GELFAND’S WORLD - People come with all kinds of personalities and temperaments. Some manage to maintain self control, even while losing their temper. 

But when people lose their temper and also lose self control, they grab for whatever is available whether it is a candle stick or a gun. If there is a gun available, they will sometimes shoot. If it's a high-power semiautomatic rifle and they are having one of those fits of anger that continue for days at a time, then sometimes they are going to start shooting at strangers. 

And of course, there are a few people who are so deranged that their normal mode of existence is to be angry and out of control all of the time. 

After that, it's just a question of multiplying the numbers of out-of-control people and the available weapons. It's that combination that gets lots of people killed very quickly. 

And that's all there really is to it. With enough people and enough guns, there will be some deranged people with access to guns. It's a mathematical certainty. 

All the rest of it is just nibbling around the edges and trying to find excuses for denial. When you look at the arguments of the gun lobby, it becomes obvious that it is an excess in circular logic -- they start from the premise that they have to defend gun ownership no matter what, and then they work from there to find any kind of excuse. 

What and how the numbers predict 

A while back, I began to see that the arguments from the pro-gun side suffer from the lack of numeracy -- that is to say, the defenders of mass gun ownership don't have a feel for the numbers and fractions. They like to suggest that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are not likely to pick up a rifle and start shooting lots of people, and they are correct. But that argument is fundamentally irrelevant. 

This is a country with a little over three hundred million people. Psychologists suggest that over the course of a lifetime, maybe one or two percent of us will have a serious mental breakdown. That's a pretty large number, something on the order of three to six million people or more. If we were to limit the calculation just to gun owners, then maybe we are looking at one or two million people out of a hundred million gun owners. 

So, the current right wing fad of blaming mass shooting events on the lack of mental illness controls is pretty surreal. There is no way of detecting all of those potential mental breakdowns, and based on what science knows right now, there is little chance of maintaining permanent cures or treatments on all of them -- we're all familiar with people who "go off their meds" and need to be brought under control in some way which often enough requires the actions of the police. 

But let's limit our analysis to a smaller cohort. Let's just imagine somebody who checks off all the boxes: It will be someone who is not limited by the ordinary moral teaching that killing strangers is wrong. It's somebody who is physically capable of handling a firearm and has the coordination to shoot rapidly (with the modern weapons, it turns out that you don't have to have much of a sense of aim, because you just keep pulling the trigger as fast as you can in a crowded place like a mall or a schoolyard, and randomness does the rest for you). It's somebody who has had the foresight to stockpile a weapon, ammunition, and perhaps extra magazines. It's somebody who is willing to carry through the fantasy of putting together the gun, the loaded magazines, and a plan. And finally, it's somebody who works up the intent and actually goes through with the fantasy of taking over a public place, killing a bunch of strangers, and dying in a blaze of glory. 

Is it likely that on any one day, perhaps one in a thousand or one in ten-thousand of us would fit the bill? No. It's not that many. Is it one in a million? Not even that many. 

But imagine that even one in ten million -- no, let's make it one in 50 million of our people -- fits that description on any given day. It's way too small a number for any number of police forces or the FBI or the army to keep track of. In fact, they wouldn't have any idea who most of them are. 

But imagine that on any given day, one in every 50 million of our people is angry and determined to snuff out human lives. Perhaps one-third of them have access to pistols or a high power semiautomatic rifle. We would predict that on the average, each day we would see a couple of mass shooting incidents. 

And so we do. On the average two a day, every day of the year. 

And even if we take those two a day and add them up over the whole year, and consider the whole 700 or so mass shooters, that's still only one wild-eyed killer out of each half-million people. 

So, when you look at it in these terms, we've actually been fairly good at holding our psycho-deranged-mass-murderers to about 0.000002 of the population over any given year, and it's still not good enough. And that's why Ted Cruz and his argument about the problem being mental illness and the danger of unlocked doors is so wrong. Ted Cruz may have been a very sharp lawyer, but he doesn't seem to handle freshman physics very well. 

The painful tradeoffs 

Allow me to submit the assertion that no matter how hard we try to find and treat people who might go off the deep end at some time in their lives, we won't be able to find and incarcerate all of them. We wouldn't be able to get to half of them, or even one-tenth of them. They don't always show signs of murderous intent, and even when they do, there is often nothing that the law can do to keep them in check -- we know this from the recent history of some of our mass shooting events. 

People are various and different from each other, and some people are effective at camouflaging their intentions, and that's the way it is. 

So the other possibility is to make ownership of high power semiautomatic rifles and semiautomatic pistols a rare thing. That's the way other countries handle it, and it works pretty effectively in places like Australia and New Zealand. 

And yes, we are talking about taking away one liberty from a lot of people. 

I would submit that ownership of battlefield weapons ought to be balanced against the mass shootings which have gotten to be so chronic. Yes, this is a proposal to punish the majority of law abiding gun owners for the acts of the few. We ought to concede that point frankly and fully, and understand it as being in the interests of hundreds of children and thousands of others who will otherwise lose their lives well before their time. 

One more thing. Our experience shows that the more dramatic of the mass shooting events lead to more sales of exactly the type of high power semiautomatic rifles that come under scrutiny as the agents of death. I would guess that one reason for the upsurge in gun sales after these mass shootings is that people are concerned that new legislation could make the purchase and ownership of these rifles more difficult. So they stock up on guns figuring that right now it is possible to buy them and probably equally importantly, their ownership of guns would be grandfathered in, even if there is some future ban on their purchase and ownership. 

So this is the time to make one thing clear. If there is going to be some grandfathering of weapons of mass killing, it won't be for any day past today. There should be no more promises, implied or explicit, that buying a $500 or $1000 weapon will mean that you get to keep it some year in the future, or even that there will be a buy-back program. We should make clear that if you want to fork out the cash for that kiddy-killer, then the risk of losing your investment is, from now on, yours and yours alone. 


During the writing of this, I became aware of a recent opinion piece by Michael Fanone on the CNN website. It makes much the same argument and offers an approach based on federal rule-making that would strictly regulate ownership of such weapons. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])