Thoughts on the Direction of the Gun Debate

Rubio’s “Laws Don’t Work” Argument

Senator Rubio argued that if someone is truly determined to carry out a horrific act, the law will not stop it. This is true, to a point. The argument bears much more heavily on demand-driven products like illicit drugs, but we don’t hear Rubio calling for the end of prohibition.

The gun case, if sensible legal hurdles block even one in a hundred, without significantly infringing on sportsmen, it’s hard to understand why we shouldn’t make that change in law. More importantly, if it fails to stop the madman from acquiring on the black market, then we can at least bring extra charges, ensuring the liability toward those supplying murder weapons.

All in all, we should take the steps we believe will help, and evaluate as we go (i.e., use science and reason).

Mental Health

Pass a bill if you think mental healthcare is the way to go. Please pass one anyway, as it’d do us all a lot of good to have the ailing be treated.

But it takes multiple components to create these massacres, and one of the necessary components is the gun and the ammunition. Over time, our ability to predict and treat may improve. For now, it is inadequate. Restricting guns is our best bet.

The NRA and Paid Actors

One of the repeated attempts to undermine changes to gun laws is to accuse people of being “paid actors.” Family members, schoolmates, and other community members affected by a shooting are all targets of this tactic.

But the people putting forth these accusations are invariably paid actors. Politicians that take money from the NRA. Right-wing media types are paid to be extremist soapbox goons. The NRA’s actual spokespeople, from their executive on down, are literally paid to stop proper functioning of government to regulate commerce.

If the gun regulation community wants to pay people to advocate, they should feel free to do so. The NRA has done it for over a century.

Other Ideas

Public notice or direct notification to guardians, the school or workplace or therapist, if someone buys a gun or ammunition. This matches with the anti-abortion parental notification laws. At least a heads-up could help either alert security guards and administrators, or maybe even spur reporting or clamoring around an unstable individual so that treatment be rendered before the worst happens.

Learn from previous bans and stop using silly surface characteristics to categorize weapons. Learn from other ban systems. Use a whitelist instead of a blacklist. Use an FDA-style (ugh!) marketing compliance system where they have to apply to sell a gun, an accessory that modifies a gun, etc.


Doing nothing is worse than stupid at this point. It’s grossly negligent. If the Republicans cannot bring themselves to do anything useful, it’s time for them to go. We need a conservative balance to the progressive and liberal impulses of the majority, but we cannot afford that balance to be an anchor against any common sense actions for the general welfare.

The NRA has a lot of sway, but they never actually pass anything or do anything to address the issue. They don’t pass a bill for mental health. All they do is take in money and spew out lies. The only way to stop a bad guy without a gun is to sell the bad guy a gun and let a good guy with a gun shoot him.

The bottom line on guns is as it has been since the late 1990s: with every act of violence the probability of major changes to gun laws goes up. The NRA, gun enthusiasts, whoever, can bitch about that fact but they won’t change the math one bit. If the NRA or gun owners or legislators want to forestall more bad laws from being enacted, they should work on solutions before that probability reaches 0.5 or greater.

The Muslim Gun Paradox

Trump wants to ban Muslims from coming to the USA. Many other Republicans have called for similar shifts, though only applied to refugees. In general, there is a right-wing consensus that Islam is a problem.

Meanwhile, many on the left want more gun control (or gun safety as they are wont to say). The New York Times even came darn close to the watchword of confiscation, saying some guns should be given up by lawful owners as part of a gun control platform.

The right wing says we either need super screening of incoming Muslim refugees, or maybe we should ban them all from coming. The left says we need super screening of gun owners, or maybe we should ban (at least some) gun ownership.

There’s some sort of pattern there. Something about needing to feel safe, being able to trust people. And both sides seem to agree that it’s needed. And yet they’re arguing as though they are living on different planets.

Why shouldn’t the right-wing admit that screening is a tool, whether it’s for immigration or gun ownership? Why shouldn’t the left-wing admit that, for the same reasons that anti-immigration agendas from the right won’t really do much, gun control isn’t a magic bullet?

Thing is, most of the people support a good screening. You don’t want to go to the doctor and she half-asses the prostate check. Get up in there. Make sure it’s nice and smooth. Maybe get a picture taken, for your social feed. You don’t want to go to the mechanic and she doesn’t change the oil filter, making the new oil just get cruddy double-time. And you don’t want people who aren’t thinking straight just going out and getting guns. You don’t want disturbed refugees to come in and spoil things.

It seems sensible to admit the irony. We need to screen, wherever someone comes from, but with greater scrutiny when they come from a warzone populated by people who might be part of a death cult. And certainly, when someone wants to buy a lethal implement, they should be given a good once-over. If someone wants to borrow your car, you tend to want to know who they are and a few more details like if they can drive, have a license, etc.

Thing is, as far as I can tell the Democrats want to screen refugees, and at least some Republicans want to have better background checks for gun sales. The fact that there are loud arguments seem to be the result of a bunch of idiots. So maybe the real screening needs to be in who we choose to listen to in arguments such as these.

Gun Issues

When the nation was reformed under the US Constitution, the country ratified the Second Article of Amendment of the Constitution, which stipulated the right to be armed in defense of the nation. The US Supreme Court has ruled that this right includes the individual’s right to be armed, outside of a militia (roughly because, if the individual is not armed, how can the militia really be so).

But we have random shootings happening, and we wonder what we should do about it. Some claim that we should limit the amount of automatically fed ammunition that firearms support. That we should pick and choose which guns should be sold. That we should have waiting periods and background checks. Others say we should focus on mental health care: that people who kill people are obviously disturbed, and they should be treated to prevent these incidents.

There are a lot of guns in the country, most of which are owned by law-abiding folks who are reasonably responsible. They want to keep owning guns, keep going hunting, keep target practicing. They have a bit of a fear or concern of government encroachment of these activities, too.

But nobody wants more people shot. We just haven’t figured out how to act. So we wait. We wait for the breakthrough that will let us do something, anything, about the problem, or around the problem.

The gun control crowd thinks that it’s insane we can’t just crack down on guns. Make them be registered, make them harder to obtain, they say.

The gun owning crowd thinks that it’s insane we can’t just arm everybody. Make them ubiquitous, make anyone looking to shoot someone worry about being shot right back, they say.

Then there are a lot of other issues that get brought up in the mix. How should the media cover such tragedy? How did the candidates respond? How many times does this have to happen before we try something? Anything?

I’m not sure what the ultimate solution is, but a couple of things do stand out:

The gun lobby, if they want to keep their guns, should be leading the charge to try to get non-control solutions enacted. The fact that they only whine and repeat tired lines about their cold, dead hands means they’re begging to have their guns taken away, rightly or not.

The pro-gun folks are constantly on defense, because these are gun issues. Barring some major change in culture and language, these will remain gun issues. Moreover, they fail to support reform of any sort, mainly out of fear that if and when it fails to produce the desired result, they will have a harder time blocking gun control.

So, their strategy is to do nothing, even though these are issues about which they choose to concern themselves.

The gun control side should push divestment and other economic leverage strategies if they believe their cause is just. They don’t have the legislative route, but money is louder than law anyway. The fact that there is no high-profile divestment and boycott is an equal sign of complacency as the gun lobby’s inaction.

But they don’t do that. The control side is a lot less organized and vocal. The fact that they do not have a legislative caucus, capable of legislating, means they feel like they can’t do anything. They haven’t found the traction to build any sort of national movement, and they’re as afraid as the gun folks that if they try a big push and fall, they will lose any credibility and set their movement back even more.

So we have a stalemate of inaction. Neither side dares to actually do anything meaningful. And so the only people doing anything are the shooters, with their meaningless violent acts that bring horror and dismay to us time after time.

But, if either side acts, the stalemate will get broken, and something will change (successfully or not). If both sides act as above, the stalemate will still get broken, and something will change (successfully or not). This seems to be a case where any action would be preferable to no action. Either side, literally doing just about anything, that would be something.

Waiting for Congress to elect a speaker, to swing to the Democrats, to figure out that none of us call post offices by their pet names so they might as well stop bothering, that’s all futile. Congress is proving that although we do need government, we can get by without a legislature. We won’t do great things, but we won’t just fall apart if the GOP decides it has better things to do than govern.

Public Perception’s Role

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has finalized their latest report on climate change. It’s a very complex issue, involving a very complex system of input energy from the sun, water in various forms, air and water currents, reflectivity and absorption of electromagnetic radiation, and biological lifecycles. Farming techniques. Transportation and energy generation. Fossil fuel extraction and use. Market economics.

Recently ProPublica ran a series of articles on Acetaminophen (Paracetamol, or Tylenolâ„¢) (ProPublica: Series: 20 September 2013: Overdose), regarding the dangers surrounding one of the most commonly consumed medications in the world.

The Affordable Care Act’s exchanges and open enrollment period will begin on Tuesday 1 October 2013. But will it mean the end of the republic? Or a great new day for the health of the people?

Nicotine-containing liquids and cartridges of vaporizers will likely soon be deemed as tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In preparation for the release, 40 attorneys general and a bevy of supposed public health organizations have rallied their mouthpieces to call for tough regulations.

People with guns keep killing people, stoking more and more debate over the role of guns and gun owners in society.

These things have in common one key factor: public perception, or at least the appearance of public perception.

At least in the case of Tylenolâ„¢, most people believe it’s safe. They believe it is safer than it is, at least in some instances. So, the argument goes, oughtn’t people be made aware of the exact dangers?

Ah, but the debate counters, it might stop people from using it out of fear, and that could indeed lead to harm, too. For example, someone might forgo a regiment of an analgesic like Tylenolâ„¢ when they have a high fever, and that could make matters worse.

And there we have the gist of these issues: risk balancing. Public perception deems some risks unacceptable, others acceptable.

But that’s not the nature of these debates, unfortunately. If these debates were predicated on finding our best tolerance for risks, we would be successful. But these debates are muddied by non-risk issues, such as profits for certain industries, or emotional appeals by people who have been victims or lost loved ones to particular diseases or behaviors.

The result is further muddiment: the side believing that the risk is too high or too low, faced with opposition using emotion or profit motives, slings back. Escalation.

But one of the keys is the tendency to equate property with self, and to equate company or incorporation with family or nation. That is, people will defend land as though it is an extension of the self, and will defend their employer as though it were their kin. To the extent that they put these things above the common good.

This is all seen as rather normal and in some cases laudable.

But the real measure of truth is putting the data forward in as clear a way as possible. Letting people decide their own risk tolerance, where possible. We don’t see that happening as much as it could. We see the opposite: companies trying to thwart the scientific evaluation of climate change. No improved information on the potential dangers of over-the-counter pain relievers. Sad attempts to demonize health insurance reform efforts, rather than the facts about the options for future reforms, including tradeoffs. Efforts to portray nicotine vaporizers as just as bad as smoking, undermining public health. And gun debates that focus on everything except the underlying problems that lead to violence: economics and mental health.

We seem to avoid real solutions in favor of addressing our unhappiness that our problems exist.

Firearms, Violence, and Society

Guns make money. According to Statistic Brain: Firearm Industry Statistics, annual revenues of $11 billion. Moreover, prominent media events (including the election of democrats and acts of violence) drive impulse buying of weapons, due to the threat of new regulations.

Violence makes money, too. We spent over $600 billion in 2010 (Wikipedia: Military budget of the United States), and we have spent over $3 trillion on the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When you add in the money spent on police and private protection, prison, and the legal system, the numbers grow even further. Opportunity costs for all of these things, and you’re talking about vast amounts of human capital and funding that could propel society far into the future.

It costs us all something, to have these overgrown industries. And in the wake of tragedy our instinct is that it’s not enough. We need more guns, we need more police, we need more security. We need to double down on violence. It’s a loser’s bet, though.

What we need to double down on is science. On societal transformation beyond simply barring or allowing the presence of weapons. We need to recognize that we can and will move past violence (or the world will move past us). It’s only a question of when and how.

We need to have a serious discussion about… guns? Really? We need to have a million serious discussions about society. But it’s always a bait-and-switch. Nobody can be bothered to reimagine society writ large. It’s always, “what can we do about these damn guns but keep everything else the way it is?” Or, “how can the government pay its bills without decreasing services or raising taxes?”

What we call that in Computer Science is an overconstrained problem. Professors like to cite the Kobayashi Maru (Wikipedia: Kobayashi Maru), from the original series of Star Trek. This was a fictional test at the Star Fleet Academy. It was a rock and a hard place proposition where you either attempt to rescue the crippled Kobayashi Maru and risk provoking war, or leave it to certain destruction.

On his third attempt, James T. Kirk reprogrammed the simulation to allow a successful outcome. The point being, you shouldn’t always rely on initial constraints; don’t take a perceived mountain as truly immovable.

And we shouldn’t do that with our society, particularly the leaders. They have aides and colleagues telling them what won’t work, leaving them with a very narrow path to take. They look like utter schmucks, or at least untrained mimes, trying to walk a tightrope down a wide path. They never attempt to engage the people beyond some short-sighted resolution to avenge the deaths of the innocent. Never attempting to avenge the lives of the innocent, who currently want and need a real, functional government.

That is, the people of the Kobayashi Maru, that can still be saved.

It’s our choice, whether we succumb to the test constraints, deciding either not to risk saving them, or to risk it and face certain death, or take the third option, toss out the constraints and find some other way. It’s plain which path I think is best. What about you?