Monday, April 30, 2007

Our Dishonest Gun Debate

It has been two weeks since the brutal murder of several Hokies by a deranged student, and now I finally post on the issue. My silence was not based on a lack of interest, but rather on a desire to avoid pronouncements during an emotional state. (Living but a few hours from Blacksburg, and almost having gone to VT, having actually met one of the professors who was killed, it certainly was a bit overwhelming!)

No, I'm not going to delve into Cho or his history. Nor will I talk about what Tech officials could or couldn't have done, beyond saying that the criticism of the administration soon after the incident was somewhat misplaced. What matters most to me is the longer structural question of gun control. I have tried to form an opinion on just where I stand on the issue, but that effort has been frustrated by the phenomenal dishonesty by both sides of the debate, seeking to prop their interests by skewing or outright lying.

The most prominent example of that dishonesty was a column by former Senator and presidential hopeful, Fred Thompson, of Law & Order where he argued that gun-control reduces violence. A well argued point, except he used as an example the fact that Great Britian, with the strictest gun-control laws in the planet, had higher gun-related deaths per-capita than the US. I knew that wasn't true, so I turned to peer-reviewed literature (the advantage of being in academia). Hmm, at least this one paper showed it not to be true....

I first thought Thompson had used a clever trick - by lumping terrorism-ridden Northern Ireland with England & Wales, the number of gun deaths would be artificially inflated (of course, you could add American soldiers who died in Iraq in the US toll to skew American numbers!) But an analysis by Dr Martin Killias at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland reveals the per-million gun homicides rates in England & Wales was 0.8, Scotland 1.1, Northern Ireland 21.3 ... and the US 44.6. So it's possible Fred Thompson just flat out lied.

And yet the claims that gun control works are just as dishonest. Cook and Ludwig found in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000, little impact of the gun-control law, the Brady Act in reducing gun violence. This is something much of the mainstream media doesn't seem to acknowledge. Gun control doesn't really always work - it appears to have in tiny UK, but in a country as large as the US, there seem to be ways around it.

What then to make of a gun policy? If the statistics are inconclusive, we need to turn to moral arguments. Here too, I'm torn between the two sides. I do believe every person needs the right to own a gun and defend him- or herself - if I lived in a big city, I do not want to rely on the police when travelling through a violent neighborhood. And yet, I don't find the need to undergo a background check or register my weapon unnecessarily intrusive - after all, I do have to jump some hoops before I can operate a vehicle - why should a killing weapon be any different?

And then there are philosophical questions to answer. What happens when there is a military coup, or we have an government that is unresponsive to the people? As ridiculous as it sounds, this would hardly be the first time. Or what if we have a Holocaust-style effort at ethnic cleansing. Private militias would protect the interests of the people when existing systems break down (yes, it's true that right now, private militias are a bunch of crazy zealots who want to cause anarchy even if it means killing innocent civilians)

And then the talk of guns used as a deterrent in situations such as VT. Do we really want untrained members of the police trying to handle a situation when police officers undergo hours of hostage training for this purpose?

When all is said and done, it appears there is still a lot to think about when we talk guns.

Postscript You probably have thought a bit about Columbine in the last couple of weeks, and probably Michael Moore's interesting movie, Bowling for Columbine. James Tucker wrote a fascinating (and non-political) critique of the movie in the journal Global Crime, that you can read here.

1 comment:

Supriya said...

The scary thing about this whole situation for me is , are we getting used to this? Has it now become "yet another shooting" incident and part of life here?

Gun Laws, something this country so strongly feels about and does nothing about is really coming to bite them in ass now. Who in their right mind would figure out a mental illness background and still sell a gun to a 23 year old. Wonder what kinda law that is.

Who pays for this? My friend Minal.