Author Archives: Ari Armstrong

Even Bernie Sanders Recognizes a Minimum Wage Can Throw People Out of Work

Bernie Sanders, along with everyone else who advocates minimum wage laws, at least implicitly recognizes that those laws can throw some people out of work. Otherwise, Sanders and his allies would insist on a much higher minimum wage, say $100 per hour.

An exchange during the November 14 Democratic debate is instructive. Sanders clashed with Hillary Clinton over whether to raise the national minimum wage to $15 or $12 per hour. But why did the “democratic socialist” Sanders not ask for even more? Does he seriously think a working head of a family can prosper financially on a paltry $15 per hour? Why not $20? Why not $50? The answer is obvious: A higher minimum wage would throw even more people out of work.

Of course, the assumption that people earning a minimum wage support a family solely on that wage is usually false—usually those people are teens or young adults, often getting free rent and other perks at their parents’ house. But, for obvious reasons, advocates of minimum wage laws usually pretend that the norm is for someone earning a minimum wage to support an entire family on it.

During the debate, Sanders even admitted that minimum wage laws can throw people out of work. Moderator Kathie Obradovich asked:

You’ve talked about raising to $15.00 an hour everywhere in the country. But the President’s former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Krueger has said the national increase of $15.00 could lead to undesirable and unintended consequences like job loss. What level of job loss would you consider unacceptable?

Sanders began his reply, “Let me say this—you know, no public policy doesn’t have in some cases negative consequences.” He made this concession because only an idiot would claim that a minimum wage set above a certain floor wouldn’t throw some people out of work.

True, Sanders later spouted nonsense about how a minimum wage would increase (some) people’s disposable income and “create jobs”—ignoring the fact that those people thrown out of work have no disposable income. Sanders also ignored a number of other facts, such that wealthier people also spend money on goods and services and that money taken out of investment hampers business development and slows economic growth. But, for one shining moment, Sanders let slip the obvious if uncomfortable truth about minimum wage laws.

Incidentally, Krueger—the economist cited by Obradovich—has an October 9 op-ed in the New York Times explaining his view that a $12 national minimum wage would be a good idea but that a $15 minimum would be too high. I think Krueger is basically on the wrong track for a variety of reasons; as examples, he draws his conclusions largely from studies of a single industry (restaurants) for a short period of time, and he doesn’t consider alternative anti-poverty measures that would arguably be a vast improvement over any minimum wage. Maybe someday I’ll delve more deeply into his studies and related studies (if someone would like to finance such a project, please let me know).

But, for now, at least we’ve seen an important concession even from the far-left reaches of the American political landscape: Yes, minimum wage laws can throw people out of work.

John Lott Defends “More Guns, Less Crime” Thesis

Recently I interviewed criminologist Gary Kleck about gun ownership and crime. In the course of that interview, Kleck expressed skepticism regarding economist John Lott‘s claims that expanded concealed carry of handguns reduces crime. I asked Lott if he wanted to reply, and he graciously agreed to do so. He also addressed a number of other questions regarding gun ownership and crime.

I think there’s still much work to be done to square all of the seemingly conflicting claims regarding guns and crime in the United States and across different regions in and out of the country. (Perhaps I’ll look more deeply into such issues in the future.) However, Lott’s remarks provide some excellent leads. Below are his unedited replies to my questions. —Ari Armstrong

Ari Armstrong: Americans who want to regulate guns more heavily (or even ban guns) often invoke international comparisons. Rates of violent crime generally, and rates of gun-related violent crime specifically, are higher in the United States than in Canada, Australia, and various western European nations. What do you think is the significance of such international comparisons?

John Lott: We can learn something from international comparisons, but it is important to recognize that crime rates vary across countries for a large number of reasons. A common comparison is to look at the low homicide rate in the UK compared to the US and assume that is just because of the UK’s strict gun control laws. But after the January 1997 ban on handguns, the UK’s homicide rate actually rose by 50 percent over the next eight years. It only declined after that back down to its pre-ban rates after an 18 percent increase in the number of police.

Indeed, the same thing happens elsewhere. In every country in the world that has banned guns, murder rates have gone up.

The UK has lower homicide rates than the US, but their homicide rate actually rose relative to the US after they had a gun ban. There is something else besides gun ownership that explains the difference between the two countries.

Australia’s crime rates also haven’t changed the way that gun control advocates would have predicted. The buyback in 1996 and 1997 resulted in more than 1 million firearms being turned in and destroyed. This reduced the number of guns in the country from 3.2 million to about 2.2 million guns. Since then, however, there has been a steady increase in the number of privately owned guns. In 2010, private gun ownership was back to 1996 levels.

Their firearms homicide rate had been falling for a decade prior to the buyback. It continued falling at the same rate after the buyback. There was no sudden drop, just a fairly constant decline that continued even as gun ownership rose back up to previous levels.

Armstrong: What does your phrase, “more guns, less crime,” summarize with respect to concealed carry? Is your claim that liberalized concealed carry laws led to people owning more guns for defensive purposes, carrying guns more frequently, or both? I know of people in Colorado who purchased handguns because of the liberalized carry laws and who started sometimes carrying a concealed gun because of the laws, but I don’t know how typical such practices are. What’s the best estimate of the effects of the laws in terms of gun ownership and carry?

Lott: Just as law enforcement deters crime with higher arrest or conviction rates or longer prison sentences, the fact that victims can defend themselves also makes committing crime riskier. This point applies not only to guns in the home but also to concealed handgun permits.

The number of concealed handgun permits has exploded in recent years—rising from 4.6 million in 2007 to at least 12.8 million this year. This underestimates the increase because the number of states where permits are required in all or virtually all of a state has increased from 5 to 10.

Armstrong: As you’re aware, criminologist Gary Kleck has criticized both aspects of your claim, “more guns, less crime.” He has said that liberalized concealed carry laws didn’t actually result in more people owning guns or even carrying them concealed more frequently. He has also said that there was no discernible drop in crime resulting from the laws. I know this debate is enormously complex, but can you summarize some of the main evidence here?

Lott: Gary and I have a very different view on how people behave. Economists believe that there is something called the law of demand: As something becomes less costly people do more of it. That applies to people buying more apples as the price falls and to getting more concealed handgun permits. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that the number of permits increases as the cost of getting them in terms of either fees or training costs goes down.

Gary, like sociologists generally, doesn’t believe that prices alter people’s behavior. I don’t think that the evidence supports that view and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I also don’t understand why Gary and other sociologist don’t believe that police deter crime.

That said, Gary claims that while the number of concealed handgun permits has soared from 4.6 to 13 million over the period from 2007 to 2015, no more people are legally carrying guns than they did previously.

Clearly not everyone who gets a concealed handgun permit carries their gun. But unless the percentage of people with permits who do carry has fallen dramatically, the number of people who carry must have increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Just between 2007 and earlier this year, the number of people with concealed handgun permits tripled from 4.6 to 13 million, and that doesn’t take into account the rapidly growing number of states that no longer require permits in carry in all or virtually all of their states.

What I have found is that concealed handgun permit holders are extremely law-abiding, and I have to believe that when they can’t legally carry they don’t carry.

So if the number of concealed handgun permits goes up when the concealed handgun laws change, there are a lot of studies that show crime rates decline. Indeed, the vast majority of studies find that relationship.

If one doesn’t believe in deterrence, there is one question that I frequently ask people. Would you post a sign announcing that your home is a gun-free zone? Would you feel safer? In my experience, even the most ardent gun control advocate would never put “Gun-Free Zone” signs on their home. That seems like strong evidence that even gun control advocates believe in deterrence.

Armstrong: Kleck claims that “across areas, there is no effect of gun ownership rates on crime rates, including homicide rates.” What’s your response?

Lott: Well, I know that Gary feels very strongly that gun ownership doesn’t make people safer, but I think that the evidence is fairly clear. Take a simple point: Can you name one place in the world where guns were banned where murder rates went down? I can’t. Every place in the world that has banned either handguns or all guns has seen murder rates go up. Americans are familiar with what happened in Chicago and DC, but it is even true for what would be the ideal gun control experiment—island nations that can’t blame a neighbor for their guns. If Gary were correct, you would think that you would see at least a couple clear cases where murder rates remained unchanged.

There is also evidence that the states that have had the biggest increases in gun ownership have had the biggest drops in violent crime rates.

Gary puts much more weight on purely cross-sectional data. I explained earlier why that approach is likely to be very misleading, but in this case, even if I don’t put much weight on this evidence, countries with the lowest gun ownership rates do tend to have higher homicide rates.

Armstrong: Kleck says that U.S. gun laws “don’t have any effect” and are “not even intended to have an effect” on gun ownership rates. What do you think about that?

Lott: Clearly this statement is wrong. For example, if guns are banned, won’t that affect the gun ownership rate? But it is wrong in a simpler sense. If the total costs of getting a concealed handgun permit in Illinois is $500 but in Pennsylvania it is $19, does anyone honestly believe that it won’t cause relatively fewer permits to be issued in Illinois? This gets back to our earlier discussion about the differences between economists and sociologists.

With Gary’s view of the world, I don’t think that you can understand why gun control advocates push for the types of gun control laws that they push. It seems clear, at least to me, that the regulations are aimed at increasing the cost of gun ownership precisely to reduce gun ownership and eventually make it easier to pass gun control. For example, back in 1997, Tom Smith, a gun control advocate and the director of the General Social Survey, told me that a large drop in gun ownership would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns” and pass more restrictive regulations.

Armstrong: Most people, including most politicians and most academics, have no or almost no training in statistical regression analysis. I took an introductory class in college, so I have a rudimentary understanding of it. Yet much of the debate over the impacts of concealed carry laws hinges on such analysis. How should the layperson approach conflicting claims that rely on regression analysis? Is it fair to say that, if the statistical trends aren’t obvious and that different researchers can interpret them differently, a generalized skepticism is a sensible default position?

Lott: That is an excellent question. It is also a difficult one. There is a truth out there to be discovered. But many people involved in the academic debate figure that people will just look at their conclusions and not how they got there. Still, there are some things to look for in any study:

  • Do they use all the data that is available? If someone doesn’t use all the data available, they better have an extremely good reason and I would be very skeptical. Imagine that you flipped a coin 20 times and got 10 heads and 10 tails. If I let someone selectively pick coins, he could get any result he wants (such as picking 5 heads).
  • Do they use what is called “panel” data? Data that looks at many different places over time. Very few academics look at either purely cross-sectional data (looking across places at one point in time) or purely time series (looking at one place over time). Panel data combines the two and allows one to have lots of experiments and thus disentangle different possible explanations.
  • Do they only look at one gun control law? Many liberals argue that all sorts of gun control laws are important, but then they only account for one gun control law in their study. It gives an idea of how much they may have cherry-picked their results.
  • Do they at least start with an approach used by other academics? For example, with panel data do they account for geographic and time differences (so call “fixed effects”).
  • Do they misdescribe others’ research?

Beyond that it takes a lot of work to read studies (particularly opposing studies), but the more studies you read the more you read the more you will be able to draw your own judgments.

Armstrong: Perhaps the proposed reform of gun laws that strikes the most people as common-sensical is to expand and improve the background check system for gun purchases. Yet you’ve been critical of that system on grounds that it doesn’t work very well and that it actually prevents some people in profound danger from obtaining a gun for self-defense. Do you think the background check system could be improved, or should it just be scrapped? If the latter, what do you think should be done instead?

Lott: Background checks seem to make people feel safer, but the truth is the background check system is a mess. Virtually everyone who is stopped from buying a gun is a law-abiding citizen who should have been able to buy it, but they were stopped simply because they have a name similar to someone the government really wanted to stop.

The president keeps claiming that “background checks have kept more than 2 million dangerous people from buying a gun,” but stopping someone because they have a name similar to that of a felon is not the same thing as stopping a felon from buying a gun.

This is the same problem experienced with the “No Fly” list. Remember the five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was “initially denied” flights because his name was on the anti-terror “no fly” list? His name was just too similar to someone that we really did want to keep from flying. By Obama’s method of counting, that means the “no fly” list stopped five flights by terrorists.

For gun purchases, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dropped over 94 percent of “initial denials” after just the first preliminary review. The annual National Instant Criminal Background Check System report explains that these cases were dropped either because the additional information showed that the wrong people had been stopped or because the covered offenses were so many decades old that the government decided not to prosecute. At least a fifth of the remaining 6 percent were still false positives.

All these denials mean delays for many law-abiding gun buyers. Although this is merely an inconvenience for most, initial denials cause dangerous delays for people who suddenly, legitimately need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex-boyfriend or spouse.

Beyond the crashes in the computers doing the checks and the initial denials, another 6 percent of checks fail to be completed within two hours, with most delays winding up taking three days.

President Obama ignores what happens to those who suddenly feel threatened. A gun really can make a huge difference in being able to defend against assailants. Indeed, my own research suggests these delays from the background check system likely increase violent crime, even if ever so slightly. Perhaps not too surprisingly, rape appears to be the crime most sensitive to these delays.

Furthermore, there is no real scientific evidence among criminologists and economists that background checks actually reduce crime. In fact, a 2004 National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that the Brady background checks didn’t reduce any type of violent crime. Nor have other later studies found a beneficial effect.

The number of criminals stopped by the checks is also quite small. In 2010, there were over 76,000 initial denials, but only 44 of those were deemed worthy for prosecution and only 13 individuals were convicted. Even those 13 cases don’t tend to be the “dangerous” criminals Obama claims are being stopped.

The delays have other consequences. States that have applied background checks to sales by private individuals have seen around a 20 percent drop in the number of gun shows, eliminating for many poorer people a relatively inexpensive source of buying guns. For gun shows, which usually only last two days, even a three-day delay means that no sale will be made.


Criminologist Gary Kleck on Guns, Crime, and Their Study

Recently I cited the work of criminologist Gary Kleck to rebut claims about defensive gun use and the relative risks of gun ownership; see “Michael Shermer’s Bogus Claims about Defensive Gun Use: Why the ’22 Times’ Statistic Is Nonsense.”

As a follow-up to that article, I contacted Kleck to see if he’d be interested in being interviewed; he graciously agreed. I interviewed him by phone on November 2; the transcript (lightly edited and approved by Kleck) is below. I’ve added some headers for ease of navigation.

One need not agree with all of Kleck’s conclusions to find his remarks enormously insightful. I have four main concerns that might make interesting research topics for later. First, I wonder if factors other than the planning requirements and lethality of suicide methods impact the likeliness of a person attempting suicide. In particular, I wonder if the painfulness (real or perceived) of a method makes a difference. Second, I know quite a few people in Colorado who did not carry a handgun prior to liberalized licensing who do carry now. I find it hard to believe that my experiences are atypical; thus, I’m skeptical of the survey that Kleck cites indicating that carry laws didn’t affect carrying practices. Third, I wonder if Kleck is too skeptical of the possibility of more proactive policing in cases where people make direct threats of violence or articulate plans to commit violence. Fourth, I wonder how much of a difference, if any, expanded records for background checks would make in keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. But these concerns are minor relative to the enormous value of Kleck’s expert and deeply researched discussions.

Kleck’s remarks will not settle every debate in these areas, but they are an excellent place to start in thinking through the complexities of gun ownership and crime. —Ari Armstrong

November 21 Update: See also John Lott’s reply and answers to related questions.

Estimating Defensive Gun Use

Ari Armstrong: Over the years various researchers, including you, have attempted to estimate the annual number of defensive gun uses in the United States. Of course, defensive gun uses have probably decreased over the years as violent crime has fallen. In your view, what is the best estimate at this point?

Gary Kleck: I think your premise is correct, that defensive gun uses would go down proportionally as the need for defensive gun use goes down, and thus as the crime rate goes down.

The violent crime rate is about half now of what it was circa 1993, when we did that survey on defensive gun uses, so, best guess, the number of defensive gun uses would be about half. So, if it was 2.5 million then, it would be 1.2 million or so now.

But, I have to tell you, there hasn’t actually been a national survey on the subject that I know of since 2000. It’s as if, once people found out what kind of answers they would be getting if they did a national, probability-based survey, they ceased doing them. They didn’t ask the question anymore.

The defensive gun-use question has been asked in quite a few non-academic surveys—Gallup or whoever would ask the question as a single, isolated question in a survey largely about other topics. But nobody’s done a survey since a Washington Post survey way back in 2000. So we’re fifteen years out of date. So that’s why I have to guestimate what it would be, but I think that’s a pretty reasonable guestimate.

The Cost of Good Survey Results

Armstrong: You did such a study at one point. Would anything tempt you to conduct another such study at some point in the future? What sort of work-hours are we talking about here?

Kleck: Yes, but it’s a matter of somebody has to pay for it. I imagine these days telephone surveys similar to my previous one would probably cost you on the order of $50 for each completed reply.

To a great degree, it’s a matter of calling up, getting no answer, and so on, until you finally have someone to talk to. The interviews didn’t really last all that long when we did it. Maybe the longest ones were on the order of fifteen minutes. The shortest ones were one minute, where all we did is ask if people had a defensive gun use, and, if they said no, for most of those people, we just said “thank you very much” and hung up. Completions aren’t really where the time and labor enters into it.

It’s probably around $50 per completion; all that calling and you finally get a completed interview. We had 5,000 cases, so multiply 5,000 times $50, that’s kind of a ballpark figure of what you’re talking about. It’s an expensive proposition.

Gun Ownership and Violence

Armstrong: Various studies have claimed to show that buying or owning a firearm makes one more prone to being involved with violence. Usually these are in medical journals. What do you think of these studies?

Kleck: The authors didn’t really seem very interested in falsifying their hypothesis. Good researchers make a serious effort to show that their initial hypothesis is wrong, and then, when they fail repeatedly, it’s a strong indication that we ought to tentatively accept the hypothesis or at least not reject it.

In this case, that would mean you would ask a lot of questions about confounding factors, other things that would affect whether or not people got involved in violence besides having a gun in their household, that might also be correlated with gun ownership. You might confuse the effect of these confounding variables with the effect of having a gun in your home.

Since these studies really don’t make any serious effort to control for those factors, you really don’t know much about them.

As far as we can tell, the only reason why people who end up getting murdered were more likely to have a gun in the household is because they live in more dangerous circumstances, and they anticipated the need to have a gun for self-protection. So, if you live in a dangerous neighborhood, or you know dangerous people, or you go into dangerous places, then you are more likely on the one hand to get murdered, but of course you’re also more likely to acquire a gun somewhere along the line for self-protection. So it’s a classic case of a spurious association.

None of these studies has made any serious effort to control for those sorts of factors, things like belonging to a street gang. You’re way more likely to own a gun, and you’re way more likely to get murdered. If you don’t control for whether a person belongs to a street gang, you’re not really going to get a serious estimate of the effect of having a gun.

Probably the best of a bad lot was the famous Arthur Kellermann study from 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine. All the rest are even worse, but at least he controlled for a few possible confounding factors. But he withheld one crucial piece of information from his readers. He knew that virtually none of the people who had been murdered while having a gun in their home had actually been killed with the gun that belonged to someone in the home. They were almost always killed by someone from outside the home, presumably using their own gun, brought in from outside the home. So whether the victims had a gun of their own in the house had absolutely nothing to do with the event. And Kellermann withheld that information, and a lot of people noticed the problem right away. There were even letters to the editor of the journal asking “what gives,” and he responded with a very evasive answer in his reply to the letters.

The problem became inadvertently evident a few years later when he did another study with overlapping samples, where it became evident that he did have that information, and he knew perfectly well that people are rarely murdered with a gun belonging to someone in their own household.

It’s not usually domestic violence when people are murdered in their home. Instead, it’s more likely to be something like a crack dealer sells drugs out of his own home, and a customer comes in and kills him because he wants to get the drugs and not pay for them. That’s a little more typical of people killed while having a gun in their own home, but, of course, the customer brought in his own gun to murder the dealer.

Substitution in Methods of Suicide

Armstrong: Suicides are horribly tragic however they happen. Regarding methods, obviously there is some substitution effect: If a person cannot easily get a gun to commit suicide, he or she can substitute some other method, such as drugs, hanging, or jumping from a height. What do you think is the best estimate of this substitution effect? In other words, in what fraction of suicides, if a person didn’t use a gun, would the person probably have reached the same result with some other method?

Kleck: I wouldn’t call it an estimate of a substitution fraction, but I can put it this way. There’s really nothing to prevent every last one of those people, who otherwise would have used a gun, from using other methods.

Hanging is the second most common method of committing suicide—a distant second, currently. But, of course, if you got rid of guns, then that would no longer be the case—guns could not be the leading method of committing suicide.

My suspicion is that hanging would be the next most likely substitute, not only because it’s already the next most common way of killing yourself, but also, by reputation as well as in reality, it’s essentially as lethal as shooting yourself. They’re both about eighty percent fatal or less. You can only get an upper limit estimate of what percent result in death, because we always have incomplete counts of nonfatal attempts. Some attempts just don’t come to the attention of the authorities or don’t get medically treated.

Based on what we do know about, based on total number of suicides divided by total number of known suicide attempts, it’s about eighty percent. There’s no statistically significant difference between the two methods, which means presumably you’d have the same percentage dying if they used hanging rather than shooting.

It doesn’t take any special possessions or objects in order to do it—nothing other than a belt or a length or rope would be sufficient to form a noose, and a strong support to hang it from. That’s about all you need. So the materials are even more widely available than guns are. Guns are only in about half of U.S. households; presumably, something you could use as a noose is available in virtually all households. People hang themselves in prisons and jails all the time, and obviously prisoners are very restricted in what materials they have access to.

My judgment is that it would be very rare that someone wouldn’t be able to hang themselves who otherwise would have used a gun.

The only exceptions I might make is if people are really impatient to kill themselves—they had an impulse to commit suicide that didn’t last more than, say, ten or fifteen minutes. Then the preparation time to fashion a noose and find a strong support to hang it from might be sufficient to lead to at least some of those people changing their minds.

Adolescents appear to be the ones who have the most impulsive suicide attempts. They’ll have some transitory crisis in their life—like their significant other dumped them—and if they could just wait it out, or have the experience of living through similar things in the past, they wouldn’t be so quick to attempt a suicide. If literally the impulse to commit suicide didn’t last any longer than fifteen or twenty minutes, you could imagine some fraction of those adolescent suicide attempters not killing themselves quite as quickly as they would have been able to do with a gun. If there’s any saving of lives by change in method, it’s probably most likely to be among adolescent suicide attempters.

Gun Ownership and Crime Rates

Armstrong: Various people have made claims about the relationship between gun ownership and crime in a given region, such as by state. What do you think is the best evidence for what happens to violent crime in a given region (let’s say in the U.S.), other things equal, if gun ownership increases or decreases?

Kleck: There isn’t any direct evidence on that kind of short-term increase or decrease in gun ownership. Usually what you have in the way of pseudo-evidence is what happens when there’s some change in gun control. And the assumption is that if guns were more heavily restricted, then there must have been a reduction in how widely owned they are, or, if there’s a change in gun control in the opposite direction, then there’s a change in the opposite direction in gun prevalence. That’s almost certainly a false assumption.

What we know about the effects of gun laws on gun ownership rates is that they don’t have any effect. They’re not even intended to have an effect. They’re intended to have an effect on a small subset of the population—people with criminal convictions, especially felony convictions, and that’s about it. It’s too tiny a fraction of the population to have much material effect on overall gun ownership.

If you leave aside the research on what happens when somebody adds or deletes a gun control, we really don’t have much in the way of direct evidence.

All we know is that, across areas, there is no effect of gun ownership rates on crime rates, including homicide rates. That’s what we know.

Now, if there was some really enormous short-term increase in gun ownership, who knows? But that’s the point: We don’t have any evidence directly bearing on it. And I don’t think anything like that has been going on anywhere. Gun ownership has probably been pretty stable. It varies enormously from place to place, but it really doesn’t seem to vary much from year to year, when we rely on national surveys.

On rare occasions when surveys seem to suggest a change, it’s usually because there’s been a change in the willingness of gun owners to tell surveyors that they own guns. Something like that apparently occurred after the Brady Act was passed and the assault-weapons ban (on sales) was passed in 1993 and early 1994. There was some implausibly rapid and sharp decline in people reporting gun ownership to surveyors, but I really doubt there was an actual drop in the prevalence of gun ownership, since neither measure was actually intended to reduce that. Again, they were intended to keep bad guys away from guns, not reduce the overall gun ownership rate.

The best estimate we have is that gun ownership rates don’t make any difference.

Shortcomings of Surveys on Gun Ownership

Armstrong: How accurate do you think are surveys regarding gun ownership rates in the U.S.?

Kleck: There are strong indications that surveys underestimate the prevalence of gun ownership. We’ve got all sorts of little bits and pieces of evidence that point in that direction. For example, there have been a couple of studies where researchers get a list of people who are known to be gun owners, because they’ve registered their guns and are licensed gun owners with the authorities. Researchers go and survey them, not telling the respondents that they already know they own guns. They’ll ask them, just as if they were Gallup asking out of nowhere if they own a gun, and something like one in eight legally registered gun owners falsely claim they don’t have one.

But that’s an underestimate of concealing of gun ownership in itself, because remember that’s the most law-abiding subset. If you ask yourself, how many criminal gun owners are likely to deny gun ownership—people who illegally own guns, and are not supposed to be owning any type of firearm because of a criminal conviction—the rate of intentionally concealing gun ownership is almost certainly much larger.

And then we have gun possession by adolescents where their parents don’t know about it. Juvenile gang members, it’s unlikely they’d tell their parents that they’ve hidden away a gun somewhere on the premises. If you add all that up, the prevalence of gun ownership is almost certainly higher than it appears to be when the Gallup pollster or someone like that asks the question.

John Lott and Concealed Carry

Armstrong: What do you think of John Lott’s claims about concealed carry, particularly his thesis as summarized “more guns, less crime?”

Kleck: First of all, making carry laws more lenient did not increase the number of guns out there, or gun ownership, so the whole phrase, “more guns, less crime,” is wrong. Lott did not know that there were more guns, and it’s highly unlikely that there were more guns in the sense that he meant.

He cited one pair of surveys that weren’t comparable to one another, one done before, and one done after. A bunch of states had passed right-to-carry laws, and most of the surveys there didn’t even indicate the increases in gun prevalence that he claimed. There are maybe a couple of states that, if you take the results at face value, seem to indicate an increase, but, since the questions were not phrased the same—and it matters how you phrase the questions—they weren’t comparable.

So you really had zero evidence that gun prevalence increased. Certainly national surveys did not indicate any increase in gun prevalence. The whole premise of “more guns, less crime” was false, because there was no indication that there were more guns as a result of that kind of law being passed in many states.

What increased is the number of people who were legally authorized to carry. But there’s no indication that the total number of people carrying guns for self-protection increased, either. We only know more were legally authorized to do so.

There was a national survey later on that interviewed just people who had carry permits. Surveyors asked people if their frequency of carry had increased or decreased after getting the permit. Of course, if everyone were a law-abiding citizen, they wouldn’t have been carrying before at all. They would have been doing zero carry. So everyone should have said there was an increase. In fact, about the same number of people said it decreased as increased, and a lot of people said it didn’t change at all.

This means the best evidence we have is there was no increase in carrying among people who eventually got carry permits. I don’t know who else was supposed to increase their carrying if not the permit holders. There’s in fact no good reason to think that even the rate of carrying went up. What instead happened is that people who were already carrying guns for self-protection, without benefit of a carry permit, then took advantage of the more liberal rules for getting a permit, and they got a permit. They legitimized the carrying they’d already been doing.

So no increase in the prevalence of gun ownership, no increase in the rate of carrying, and thus no sound reason to expect that criminals were facing more of a risk of running into an armed crime victim.

Having said that, I also want to point out that I’m perfectly sympathetic with the idea that criminals do pay attention to the risk of running into an armed victim. That’s not at all what I’m quibbling with. I’m quibbling with whether or not there was any reason for that perception of risk from armed victims to have gone up as a result of the right to carry laws. I don’t think it did.

I think the best available studies on the subject indicate those laws did not have an effect on the crime rate. Lott was making various mistakes in the research, and, when they’re fixed, then there’s no evidence that the laws actually caused decreases in crime rates.

[November 21 Update: See also John Lott’s reply.]

Gangs and Violence

Armstrong: Let’s turn to questions of where crime is coming from in our country. How much violent crime takes place in the subset of the population we would typically associate with the gang culture?

Kleck: In places like Chicago or Los Angeles, it’s a huge fraction of it. It varies enormously from place to place. It may well be that half or more of the gun homicides in those cities are gang related. But in most places in America, it’s a somewhat more modest fraction.

We don’t have national figures that are of any use. For what it’s worth, in the FBI uniform crime reports data, they do have a category for the circumstance in which the crime was committed. One possible box that local police can check in filling out the homicide reports for the FBI could indeed be for gang-related. But the problem is that the FBI forms require police to check just one circumstance. So if a guy belongs to a gang, and he was selling drugs, and he has a dispute with his customer over the price, and then they get into an argument and one shoots the other, that could go into any of three or four different categories, only one of which is gang-related. So those data are useless.

What we’re stuck with are local estimates, and, as I say, it varies enormously from one locality to another. It’s a huge percentage in a couple of cities. Chicago and Los Angeles have really bad street-gang problems. On the other hand, in Peoria it’s probably a relatively small fraction, certainly well under half.

Domestic Violence

Armstrong: How much violent crime is associated with domestic violence, lovers’ quarrels, and other cases involving romance or sex?

Kleck: It’s kind of a reverse of what I just said about gang violence. The same places that don’t have much of a gang violence problem are more likely to have a higher fraction of what you could call “ordinary” violence (if you can get your head around that concept).

A place like where I live, Tallahassee, I could well believe that better than half of the homicides are domestic homicides. We don’t have many killings related to other felonies—that is, there aren’t many robbery killings, rape killings, crime killings, or organized crime killings. What dominates instead is what I guess you could call the “ordinary” sorts of violence, and domestic violence is a big share. So in a place like Tallahassee it could easily be half, and hardly any is street gang related.

Violence Resulting from Drug Prohibition

Armstrong: Jeffrey Miron has a 2004 book out, Drug War Crimes, in which he claims that enforcement of drug prohibition is associated with violent crime. In the same way we had some violent crimes increase during alcohol Prohibition. What do you think of his thesis?

Kleck: I don’t know his work in particular, but certainly many criminologists have addressed the same issue. Yes, they definitely are of the opinion that prohibition is responsible for quite a bit of so-called “drug related” violence.

The vast majority of homicides linked with illicit drugs are not due to the killer being under the influence of the drugs, they overwhelming are related to the buying and selling of illicit drugs. That is, they are so-called market related crimes. Obviously that kind of violence would not occur if the drugs were not illegal. I’m not saying that necessarily implies therefore they should be legal, I’m just pointing out the consequences.

You don’t have comparable amounts of homicide among the Anheuser-Busch company versus the Schlitz company or versus Coors. They sell beer, and it’s legal, so they don’t duke it out with violence in the streets and killing one another’s dealers.

But, when the drug is illegal, violence is the only way you have of settling disputes, like disputes over markets. “This is my market share, not your market share; this is my territory, not your territory.” They can’t go to the courts and the police to resolve disputes. If they want to collect a debt, they have only one way to do it: They threaten or use force. And it’s a cash-only business, of course, which is weird in this day and age when everything is electronic transfers through credit cards and the like.

You have prohibition setting up a scenario where there’s bound to be huge amounts of violence with that kind of market. The drugs would be as bad for your health if they were legal—in many ways they would be as bad for your health—but there wouldn’t be that market-related violence, which accounts for most so-called “drug related” violence.

This is an ongoing problem we’ve had for as long as we’ve chosen to make cocaine and heroin and so on illegal. We scarcely notice it, because it’s not anything we’ve changed in decades. It’s been a century since it was legal to buy or sell cocaine or heroin. There hasn’t been any change recently for us to notice what’s the effect of the change. We’ve kind of become accustomed to it. But it’s that background amount of violence that goes on year after year after year that’s linked with the fact that we chose to prohibit those kinds of drugs.

We have an experiment, where we said, let’s see what happens when we do change the legal status. We said, let’s make alcohol illegal, and, for thirteen years, we had huge amounts of violence that were directly related to the organized crime efforts to control the market in beer and liquor. And then we passed the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, and all of a sudden the homicide rate starts going back down again. There’s certainly reason to believe that the initial increase in homicide when we passed the Volstead Act, and then the decrease when we repealed it, had a lot to do with those changes.

Problems with Predicting Violence

Armstrong: I have the idea that police should spend more resources investigating serious articulated threats, whether in a mass-murder scenario or in a case of domestic violence. One case I have in mind is the Aurora theater shooting in Colorado, where police were warned, but they just didn’t take adequate action to prevent the crime. Regarding domestic violence, I have the impression that women sometimes go to the police but don’t get much help. Do you think this approach has merit as a potential way to substantially reduce violent crime?

Kleck: I can offer you a little bit of peripherally relevant information, because I don’t think there’s any good evidence on whether that sort of effort actually does reduce violence.

First of all, from the police standpoint, what we all fail to see are the false positives. We see the cases where they fail to take action. That is, they took the negative response of not doing anything, and then it blows up in their face because later on the person involved commits a horrible crime.

We don’t see all the false positives, or potential false positives, where there was some indication the person might do bad stuff and then they never did do bad stuff. And the latter is much more common than the former. That’s the police standpoint. They’re aware of how many complaints they get that don’t turn out to be anything. So the trick is to distinguish one from the other.

The cops are no better than the average criminologist; they’re really not very good at predicting violence of specific individual people. You might get a certain number of reliable positives: That is, you predict someone to be violent, and later on they are violent. That’s the easy part. I mean, right now I could predict that all 320 million Americans are going to be violent in the next year. And everyone who was in fact violent, I would have predicted it. But of course there is the tiny little problem that 99.99 percent of the time I was wrong. So getting correct positives is not the trick; it’s making those predictions correctly but not falsely implicating a lot of other people, the other 99 percent who are in fact not going to commit violence.

So if you’re saying we ought to do something to get a better predictive capability, I’m all for it. That means putting some serious money into research as to what the precursors of serious violence are, so we know what those warning signs are.

Expanded Records for Background Checks

I can suggest one policy change that would be good. It’s not just domestic violence; it’s violence related to mental illness. A certain number of people are not just vaguely predicted to be kind of dangerous. There are some people where, in the past, a court has gone through the process of actually evaluating the evidence. There’s a psychiatric evaluation. It’s not just a neighbor who thinks the guy is nuts and might do some harm. A court has actually been through some evidence with serious legal proceedings, and they declare a person to be dangerously mentally ill. Usually they have some vague phrase like “not capable of controlling their behavior” or whatever, but what it really means is dangerously mentally ill. That’s more than just a casual prediction of future violence.

The problem is, that information does not get widely disseminated. Great, some circuit court has now declared the guy to be dangerous—wouldn’t it be nice if we made sure that kind of guy didn’t get a gun (among other things)?

Well, now you’re a gun dealer, and this guy walks into your store. You have him fill out the usual forms, and you send them in and do the usual background check. Is the fact that he’s dangerously mentally ill going to show up in the computerized records? Ninety-plus percent of the time, no, because we have no reasonably complete, national compilation in computerized form of people who have been declared by a court to be dangerously mentally ill. And that would be nice to have.

For years the federal government has been trying to get the states to expand their computerized records and then make them available to the national database for checking. But the federal government can’t force states to do that; it’s constitutionally forbidden from forcing them to do it. All they can do is give states positive inducements, like giving them money, and they’re certainly willing to do that, but for the most part states have not taken them up on it. States haven’t gone to the effort of making their records more comprehensive and more computer accessible.

I don’t really know the details of why states have not taken that federal money and done that. I suspect there are political reasons, like claims that it might be used for a registration system, and they’ll take our guns away, or something like that.

There’s a policy change that might do some good. It’s boring, though. It’s not an exciting slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker. But it means you can improve the records and the accessibility of computerized records of people who are dangerously mentally ill and shouldn’t have a gun.

If you want to know what’s arguably the most effective thing we can do in the way of gun control, that’s it. But it’s not a matter of passing a new law, it’s making the records better. That would also help with any kind of domestic violence that happens to be attributable to the prospective offender being mentally ill.


Michael Shermer’s Bogus Claims about Defensive Gun Use: Why the “22 Times” Statistic Is Nonsense

Michael Shermer is something of a hero of mine. He often does excellent and important work defending science and reason, criticizing pseudoscience and claims about the paranormal, criticizing the view that religious faith is a source of knowledge, supporting freedom of speech, and defending a broadly liberal order in which government acts to protect people’s rights.

It is therefore especially disappointing to me that Shermer misstates the results of a study—itself deeply flawed—about defensive gun use to promote his cultural agenda regarding guns.

At issue is a claim Shermer makes in an October 6 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

[S]hould you, dear reader, choose to own a gun?

Consider this finding from a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: “Every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

In other words, the fantasy many of us have of facing down an intruder with a firearm is belied by the fact that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.1

But Shermer’s “22 times” claim is complete nonsense. Perhaps the most important problem with the study in question is that it ignores the large majority of defensive gun uses. The study counts only defensive gun uses that result in a criminal being shot and killed or treated in a nearby clinic, but most defensive gun uses do not end with that result (details below). So, by Shermer’s “logic,” if a criminal breaks into my home, and I pull a gun and say “leave or I’ll shoot,” and he leaves without me firing a shot, that does not count as a defensive gun use—which is ridiculous. Another important problem is that Shermer draws unwarranted conclusions about the typical gun owner (again, details below).

Shermer’s misstatement of the findings of the 1998 study—and his refusal to recognize the study’s deep methodological flaws—go beyond casual carelessness on his part. How so?

For one thing, Shermer has made a career out of exposing unscientific claims, so, more than most people, he should know better. If anyone deserves the title of “Mr. Skeptic,” it is Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. If someone (mis)cited a study of similar poor quality to support a claim with which Shermer disagreed, he would very quickly see through the ruse. But in this case he is self-blinded.

For another thing, Shermer has willfully ignored evidence that disproves his claims. He made an almost identical claim in 2013, again in the Los Angeles Times:

According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, for “every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” In other words, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.2

To this, I replied via Twitter, “Incredible that @michaelshermer [Shermer’s Twitter handle] is peddling the pseudo-scientific, often-disproved ‘22x’ factoid re defensive gun use.” Shermer replied, “Do you have link to debunking of the 22x defensive gun factoid? It looks solid to me but am willing to look at other studies.” I replied, “Gary Kleck responds to other iterations of Kellermann’s work in ‘Armed’ and ‘Targeting Guns.’”3 (Physician Arthur Kellermann is the lead author of the 1998 study.)

The reason I cited Kleck is that he is an academic criminologist who has done extensive original research on guns in the United States. In the 1997 book Targeting Guns, Kleck replies to Kellermann’s previous and similar 1986 study, which makes many of the same types of errors that the 1998 study makes. In 1986, the ratio Kellermann claimed was not twenty-two-to-one, but forty-three-to-one. Both ratios are nonsense.

Kleck has this to say about Kellermann’s 1986 study:

The implied cost-benefit ratio is so meaningless that it can fairly be dubbed the “nonsense ratio.” [Barry] Bruce-Briggs described [a previously published version of the claim] as “ingeniously specious” . . . and quickly dismissed it, and most serious gun scholars have ignored [Kellermann’s study and comparable] studies. . . . Nevertheless, the nonsense ratio is a favorite of procontrol propagandists . . . and medical writers.4

Unfortunately, that remains the case even today.

Kleck estimates that a criminal is “wounded, even nonfatally,” only in around three percent of defensive gun uses.5 If that estimate is accurate, then Shermer and the 1998 study he credulously cites ignore around 97 percent of all defensive gun uses. Of course, crime reporting is notoriously plagued by difficulties. Survey results on gun ownership and defensive gun use are plagued by even greater difficulties. But even if the three-percent estimate is substantially off, it remains the case that the majority—probably the overwhelming majority—of defensive gun uses do not involve shooting the criminal.

At any rate, obviously Shermer did not take seriously his stated commitment to look into evidence that ran against his preestablished viewpoint.

Incidentally, on October 5, one day before his recent Los Angeles Times op-ed popped, Shermer repeated his “22 times” claim on Twitter. I replied, “It’s hard to believe you’re still peddling this easily discredited pseudoscience about defensive gun use.”6 (Shermer’s claim is “easily discredited,” as a Google search of “22 times Kellermann” reveals. Of course, Twitter is not a good format for making complex claims.) Shermer did not reply to this.

Before I move on to a more-detailed critique of the 1998 study and of Shermer’s statements about it, I want to point out that I find Shermer’s piece more broadly, and in general his claims about guns, to be riddled with specious arguments. However, here I focus on the “22 times” statistic.

As I’m sure Shermer recognizes in other contexts, often one party can spin nonsense much faster than another party can unravel it—and he has spun a lot of nonsense. Shermer spent almost no effort making his bogus claims about the “22 times” stat, either in 2013 or again this year, yet I will have spent many hours rebutting just that one claim. I hope to discuss other aspects of guns and gun-related crime in greater detail in the future, but, if I do so, the project will consume an enormous amount of my time. (Of course, some of Shermer’s claims are correct or at least on much stronger footing.)

Now, for those interested (and hopefully this includes Shermer), I’ll offer a more-detailed critique of the 1998 study and of Shermer’s statements about it. My remarks here indirectly shed light on certain other claims often made in opposition to civilian gun ownership or in favor of stricter gun laws.

Other Problems with Kellermann’s 1998 Study and Shermer’s Take on It

Above I discuss a major problem with the 1998 study: It claims to discuss defensive gun use but in fact ignores most defensive gun uses. I’ll call this the measurement problem—the study’s estimate of the number of defensive gun uses is radically off.

Here I want to discuss other significant problems with the study and with Shermer’s interpretation of its results.

First I need to summarize the study and its main findings, published in 1998 in the Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care.7

Notably, the first line of the study states that its objective is to “[d]etermine the relative frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times these weapons are involved in an unintentional injury, suicide attempt, or criminal assault or homicide.” The study doesn’t actually claim to measure defensive gun use; it just pretends that defensive gun use is the same as defensive gun use resulting in the injury or death of the criminal. In reality the category of defensive gun use is much larger than the subset in which the criminal is shot.

The study’s abstract summarizes the main parameters and findings of the study:

We reviewed the police, medical examiner, emergency medical service, emergency department, and hospital records of all fatal and nonfatal shootings in three U.S. cities: Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas. . . .

During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

To add a detail regarding the measurement problem: The study probably understates the number of criminals who were shot at by home owners firing a gun in self-defense, as it relies on medical records in the relevant areas. But what if a criminal was grazed and did not seek medical care, or what if he traveled to a different city to seek medical care? (I use “he” recognizing that most, but not all, violent criminals are male.) Or what if the homeowner shot but missed, intentionally or not, and the criminal ran away uninjured? The study ignores these cases, which contributes to its measurement problem regarding defensive gun uses. (Again, a larger concern is cases in which a gun is brandished but not fired.)

Obviously the study totally ignores the deterrent effect of gun ownership—i.e., a criminal is less likely to break into any home in an area if he fears any given home owner may be armed.

Another major problem with the study, which I’ll call the causation problem, is that it attributes to gun ownership problems that are actually caused by other things.

Recall that Shermer begins his discussion of the 1998 study with the question, “Should you, dear reader, choose to own a gun?” Shermer therefore implies that the study in question applies to the typical reader of the Los Angeles Times or of Shermer’s articles, or, more broadly, to the typical person who might seek to buy a gun for self-defense. The study does no such thing. The study itself never asserts that its findings apply to the typical person—it just insinuates that they do. But obviously the vast majority of homicides (and many unintentional shootings) are concentrated in a small subset of the population that is not typical.

So, by Shermer’s “logic,” the fact that a gangster or a meth-head (or the like) who owns a gun is more likely to be involved in a gun-related homicide or unintentional shooting counts as a reason for the typical person, who is not a gangster or a meth-head (or the like), to avoid owning a gun for self-defense. Here too Shermer’s claims are ridiculous.

Notably, the study does not clarify which legally indefensible assaults and homicides that occurred with a gun in the home involved someone living at that home as the victim. Presumably, in some unknown number of cases, the home owner (or renter) was the perpetrator, and the victim was an outside party. So, in other words, if Gangster A visits Gangster B at Ganster B’s house, and Gangster B shoots Gangster A, that, for Shermer, is supposed to count as a reason for the typical, non-gangster person not to own a gun for self-defense.

Suicide involves a type of causation problem as well as a substitution problem. The substitution issue is that some (probably most) people who buy a gun to commit suicide easily could substitute another method of suicide (drugs, hanging, jumping off a cliff) if a gun were not available. Thus, to blame the gun for the suicide is, at least in some cases, dubious.

The causal problem at issue is that not everyone is equally suicidal. Obviously, most suicides occur among the small subset of the population that is suicidal. But the typical person is not suicidal, so Shermer is wrong to claim that gun-related suicides counts as a reason for a non-suicidal person to refrain from buying a gun for self-defense. Of course, if a person is suicidal or lives with someone else who is suicidal, that’s probably a good reason to not have a gun around or to keep a gun carefully locked up.

The extrapolation problem (or the problem of nonrepresentative samples) pertains to various aspects of the study. As we’ve noticed, it is unwarranted to extrapolate the study’s findings to the typical person, as Shermer does. It is also unwarranted to extrapolate results from the study’s small study zones—cities, where gang-related crime is higher—to the country as a whole, as Shermer also does.

To wrap up, “Mr. Skeptic” does not live up to his reputation in discussing the “22 times” factoid. Unfortunately, his muddled thinking typifies many of the claims made in today’s debates about guns, gun-related crime, and defensive gun use. I doubt that Shermer and I will ever fully agree on the appropriate policies regarding guns, but hopefully in the future we can both work toward a fair and context-rich assessment of the available evidence regarding guns and their use.



1. Michael Shermer, “Guns in the U.S.: We’re Better at Killing Americans than our Enemies Are,” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2015,

2. Michael Shermer, “A Rational Response to Sandy Hook,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2013,

3. See the relevant Tweets by Michael Shermer and me of January 15, 2013, at

4. Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1997), p. 178.

5. Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1997), p. 162.

6. See the relevant Tweets by Michael Shermer and me of October 5, 2015, at

7. Arthur Kellermann, Grant Somes, et al., “Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home,” Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, August 1998, vol. 45, no. 2, August 1998, pp. 263–267. Some of my criticisms of this study are inspired by those of Gary Kleck and others whose work I’ve read over the years.

Richard Glossip Case Shows Injustice of the Death Penalty

On September 30, Richard Glossip was moments away from being killed by Oklahoma government employees via lethal injection. “With minutes to spare,” Governor Mary Fallin stayed the execution—not because of any concern about the justice of the sentence, but because the Department of Corrections had on hand a nonapproved drug for the purpose, CNN reports. Now all executions in the state, including Glossip’s, are “suspended indefinitely” as the state’s attorney general investigates the situation with the drugs.

What was Glossip’s alleged crime, and on what grounds was he convicted of it? The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard one of Glossip’s appeals, offers a fairly thorough background—although the account offered is based partly on the testimony of a potentially unreliable witness.

In 1997, Glossip managed a hotel owned by Barry Van Treese, and he informally hired Justin Sneed to do maintenance work. Apparently Glossip was stealing from Van Treese and otherwise mismanaging the hotel, and Van Treese was conducting an audit. On January 7, Sneed beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat in a hotel room. Sneed testified that Glossip asked him to murder Van Treese and offered him money and job security in exchange.

As NBC reports, Sneed—the man who actually beat Van Treese to death—”cut a deal” for life in prison in exchange for testifying against Glossip.

Unlike many of Glossip’s defenders, I don’t actually think Glossip is innocent; I think he probably conspired with Sneed to murder Van Treese. The case against Glossip is entirely circumstantial, but it’s fairly convincing. He had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime, as they say. This is true despite the fact that an “inmate [where Sneed was imprisoned] allegedly said he heard Sneed brag in prison that he set Glossip up,” as KFOR reports. The details of the case fit together too well against Glossip for me to think the inmate’s hear-say claims establish Glossip’s innocence.

I also think sentencing Glossip to death in horrifically unjust, given the circumstances. Indeed, I think the case illustrates why, in the context of the modern American criminal justice system, the death penalty should be abolished.

Consider some of the major problems with imposing the death penalty in Glossip’s case:

  • In what universe is it fair for the man who actually committed the murder to get a radically less-severe sentence than did the man who only talked about it? It is cruel and unusual to sentence Glossip to death while Sneed—who actually beat Van Treese to death with a bat—gets life in prison.
  • The fact that Sneed obviously sold his testimony against Glossip in exchange for a less-severe penalty should automatically make that testimony inadmissible in court. That fact also renders the evidence against Glossip, on the whole, inadequate to establish Glossip’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in my view. Sneed’s testimony is corrupt. In essence, the prosecution said to Sneed, “Look, we’re going to try to kill you unless you say that Glossip conspired with you.” How is that not testimony under compulsion? In general, I think the practice of eliciting testimony under threat of much more severe criminal penalties is inherently and extremely unjust.
  • Keeping someone on death row for nearly two decades is cruel and unusual, and indeed it constitutes prolonged psychological torture. Granted, much of that delay was caused by the appeals pursued by Glossip and his attorneys. However, it would also be cruel and unusual to effectively tell a man, “Sure, you can let us kill you right now, but you’ll never know if a protracted legal battle might spare your life.” If the death penalty can be applied in a relatively humane, Constitutionally sound way, it would have to be applied swiftly and with due confidence that the legal process was not corrupted. Practically, I think meeting those conditions is impossible—so the alternative is to abolish the death penalty.
  • Last-minute stays in execution are cruel and unusual, and they also constitute psychological torture. In effect, the governor said to Glossip, “Psych! We were going to kill you right away, but now we’re going to wait some indefinite period to kill you so we can make sure the way we kill you is in accordance with largely arbitrary rules.” If that practice is Constitutional, then so should be forcing a person to play Russian roulette with a loaded handgun.
  • The fact that Oklahoma officials brutally tortured a man to death just last year—the death was intentional, the torture was not—renders subsequent attempted similar executions by these officials (or their replacements) cruel and unusual. Imagine reading the story of Clayton Lockett’s death, then realizing that many of the same people responsible for his horrific death will also be responsible for your death. To say the least, you would not be confident of a humane end. Oklahoma’s handling of previous executions imposes psychological torture on others on death row there.

Maybe some people will glibly dismiss my concerns about psychological torture and it constituting cruel and unusual punishment. But I don’t think any person can honestly imagine themselves in Glossip’s position and not recognize the fact that he has been severely (albeit psychologically) tortured. That Van Treese suffered an even worse fate does not justify what government officials have done to Glossip—the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment does not carry the disclaimer “unless the bastard really deserves it.”

I don’t have a firm position on the death penalty in the context of a well-constructed legal system. I’m leaning in the direction of thinking that merely the act of forcing a criminal to anticipate and await death constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, even if the death itself can reliably be made peaceful and painless. But, in the present legal context, those theoretical discussions are largely beside the point.

The fact is that we live in a world in which police officers and prosecutors sometimes lie, in which government officials and juries sometimes are biased, in which prosecutors sometimes put their political ambitions as well as their own convenience before justice, in which defendants often have huge incentives to lie about others on the stand in exchange for lesser sentences, in which tax-funded defense attorneys frequently are severely overworked or just plain incompetent, in which executions sometimes result in torturous deaths. In the world we live in, “Since 1973, over 140 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence.” How many were killed despite their innocence?

Someday, if we’re able to effectively reform the criminal justice system, we can talk about whether the death penalty properly plays a role in that system. But, at least in the conditions under which we live, the death penalty is unjust and it must be abolished.


Unarmed Civilian Response to Active Shooters: A Crucial Part of Reducing Casualties of Mass Attacks

Heroes of the Paris Train Attack

Heroes of the Paris train attack with French president François Hollande. United States Air Force

Recently presidential candidate Ben Carson “came under fire”1 for suggesting what to most people is common sense: If someone is actively trying to kill you, and you have no opportunity to flee, it is better to try to stop the criminal by force than to wait passively to be murdered. If you take action, you have a fighting chance to live; if you take no action, you will most likely die.

Thankfully, when an Islamic jihadist opened fire August 21 on a train headed for Paris, several people acted according to Carson’s advice—they attacked and stopped the perpetrator before he could murder anyone.

Alon Stivi—a former member of Israel’s special forces, a security consultant, and an instructor of law enforcement in counter-terrorism—said Carson’s message “is what I’ve been telling people, and teaching people how to do, for ten years.”2 Indeed, Carson’s remarks are consistent with advice that law enforcement agencies often offer (see details below).

Stivi added, “We are conditioned to dial 911 and wait, but, in the case of an active shooter, that does not work. Most casualties occur within the first ten or fifteen minutes, and police response usually is too late. Time is always the key factor, and immediate, successful response is critical for survival.”

The problem comes with translating Stivi’s insights into practical action in a time of crisis. Thankfully, Carson’s remarks, and the media attention surrounding them, offer a good opportunity to make headway there.

Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to take Stivi’s (and Carson’s) advice seriously, largely for two reasons: First, some people find it hard to separate Carson’s advice from his personality and the contentious 2016 presidential race, and, second, various well-funded advocacy groups have incentives to avoid serious discussion of the issue. Let’s take those points in more detail.

Carson has made some foolish remarks on the other issues, including evolution and Islam, and now a common media “narrative” paints Carson as gaffe-prone.3 So there has been an attempt by some to spin Carson’s perfectly sensible remarks regarding self-defense as just another gaffe.

Unfortunately, the way that Carson phrased his remarks caused confusion and opened Carson to criticism on tangential issues.

For one thing, Carson hypothetically placed himself at the scene of the recent massacre near Roseburg, Oregon, which prompted the criticism that he can’t truly know what he’d do in such a crisis. One of Carson’s competitors in the presidential race, Lindsey Graham, voiced that criticism.4 Carson would have been better off saying that, if any given individual mentally prepares for such a crisis, that individual is much more likely to respond effectively during the moment of crisis.

Next, as one ABC headline puts it, “Carson appears to be second-guessing Oregon shooting victims.”5 I don’t think that’s what Carson was doing, but it’s easy to see why his critics brought up the point. Carson should have more strongly emphasized from the start that he was in no way blaming the Oregon victims but was instead trying to learn from past horrors in order to mitigate the carnage of future possible attacks.

This last point brings up a crucial issue: If we avoid serious discussions about self-defense and survival tactics in cases of intended mass murder out of fear that such discussions are somehow insensitive to victims of past attacks, all we accomplish is to ensure that more people will be murdered in possible future attacks.

Surely we can agree that preventing murders is a worthy goal. As I will indicate in this essay, an essential way to prevent at least some murders in a typical mass attack is for unarmed civilians in certain circumstances to forcibly respond to the attacker.

To learn this lesson well, we must look at past mass attacks to see what actually happened and what might have happened had the victims had better tactical knowledge and preparation. Obviously, victims of past attacks are in no way at fault for the attack or for their possible lack of tactical acumen. The entire point of Carson’s remarks was not to blame past victims, but to “plant in people’s minds” knowledge of what to do if they find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.6

Obviously, people who think ahead of time about the best ways to respond to a given crisis are more likely to respond more effectively should the crisis strike. If we don’t mentally prepare for a crisis ahead of time, many of us will freeze if we face that type of crisis. This is especially true when facing an armed killer—one of the most stressful and horrifying types of crisis imaginable. For many people, the idea of attacking an armed killer seems insane at a gut level. But it is not insane; in some circumstances, it is the best tactical option, and one that can be extremely effective. Quite simply, in those circumstances, if you attack the perpetrator, you radically improve your chances of living. If you do nothing, you likely will die. There’s nothing crazy about taking the tactical measures most likely to keep you alive.

I also mentioned the problem of various well-funded advocacy groups lacking the motivation to seriously discuss unarmed self-defense during a mass attack; I return to that issue now.

Most of the political debate surrounding mass attacks—and therefore much of the media coverage—focuses on gun laws. The National Rifle Association argues that more restrictive gun laws would not prevent such attacks and that measures such as expanded concealed gun carry and armed guards at schools might help.7 Many Democratic politicians, as well as gun-control groups, by contrast, argue that a range of more stringent gun laws is the appropriate response. For example, Barack Obama explicitly said “we should politicize” mass shootings so as to regulate guns more tightly.8

One side, then, argues that more guns in the right hands is the answer; the other side argues that fewer guns is the answer. But unarmed self-defense during a mass attack has nothing to do with gun policy; thus, neither side of the gun-control debate has much incentive to seriously discuss it—even though, in terms of saving lives during mass attacks, it is the single most important thing we could possibly discuss.

I want to respond to a possible objection here. Some people will say, “We shouldn’t need to discuss self-defense survival tactics during a mass attack, because government should ensure that mass attacks never happen.” I agree that we shouldn’t “need” to discuss such tactics in this context or any other. In a perfect world, no person would ever try to assault or murder another, no man would ever try to rape a woman, no religious zealot would ever try to inflict harm on someone with different beliefs, no white supremacist would ever try to harm others because of their skin tone. But wishing won’t make it so. Head-in-the-sand thinking about such matters will result in one and only one outcome: More innocent people dying. Responsible people try to prevent such deaths.

Let’s say that the most far-reaching gun laws, somehow, magically were enacted in the United States. That would not stop mass murders. Even in the event of a total gun confiscation program, it would take government years—probably decades or longer—to retrieve the bulk of existing guns in America. And anyone who has ever thought seriously about the black market in illegal drugs will immediately realize that the same sort of criminal elements that now trade in illegal drugs will trade in illegal guns, no matter what the law says. Prohibition would merely make the black market in guns exponentially more profitable for criminals. As bloody attacks at such places as the offices of Charlie Hebdo make clear, countries with stricter gun laws are not immune from mass attacks.9

We need a strategy for preventing casualties during mass attacks more serious than wishing the bad guys would go away.

Teaching people the appropriate, relatively simple self-defense survival tactics useful in cases of mass attacks is probably the single most important thing we can do to prevent future carnage. It is also an excellent way for people to avoid a “paralyzing, irrational fear of mass shootings”10—which, after all, are relatively rare despite their wall-to-wall media coverage—because people will know they can be pro-active in the extremely unlikely case that they find themselves in the middle of such a crisis. Further, if more perpetrators are stopped by their intended victims, fewer sick individuals will try to become perpetrators of mass murder in the first place as their chances of hoped-for infamy diminish.

The purpose of this essay is primarily to persuade people of the need for widespread education regarding self-defense survival tactics in cases of mass attacks. This essay is not a guide for mastering those tactics.

Of necessity, I will need to discuss some of the basics of good self-defense survival tactics as I understand them. I am not an expert in the field. I do not teach these tactics professionally or as a hobby. What I know, I learned primarily from Alon Stivi and from my father, Linn Armstrong, who often works with Stivi to teach people the tactics at issue. Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to spend a day with Stivi for a class he taught in Grand Junction, Colorado, that included both research materials about mass attacks and hands-on practice in simulated attacks. I therefore have greater-than-average knowledge of the tactical matters at hand, but I am no expert. I urge readers not to attempt any of the tactics I discuss without first thoroughly vetting them independently with a reliable expert in the field.

The basics of surviving an active shooting (or other sort of mass attack, such as one involving edged weapons) can be summarized in three words: Run, hide, attack. In slightly more detail: Escape the area of danger if you can; if that is impossible, barricade yourself in a safe room or hide effectively from the attacker; if that is impossible, and your life is in imminent risk, attack the perpetrator, hopefully with the help of others in the area. The focus of this essay is on that third step, attacking the perpetrator, something that is generally appropriate only if fleeing or hiding is impossible. For short, I will refer to this strategy as “attack the perp.”

It should be clear that neither I nor any sensible person advises that unarmed people who are not in law enforcement actively try to hunt down a distant perpetrator (except perhaps in very special circumstances). This isn’t about a Rambo fantasy or a video game simulation; this is about taking the steps most likely to keep you alive. Only if you are in close proximity to an active attacker, and you have no opportunity to flee or hide, should you consider attacking the perpetrator.

The basic advice summarized by “run, hide, attack” is not controversial among experts in the field. It is the basic advice (described in somewhat different language) offered by videos produced by the Los Angeles Police Department, New York State University Police, Texas State University, the city of Houston, and Stivi’s Attack Countermeasures Training:11

The type of situation we’re talking about, in which the best tactical move is to attack the perp, is when the perpetrator is close and escape is not an option. Scenarios include the perp breaking into a room from which you cannot easily escape or opening fire in a crowd where you are very close and cannot reasonably hope to run away in time.

Obviously, if the situation calls for attacking the perp, there are better and worse ways to do it. Many people who encounter an active shooter will not have prepared much if at all for the situation. At the point of crisis, you cannot get better preparation; all you can do is act as effectively as you can. In these cases, the basic idea is to get the perpetrator on the ground and incapacitate him (most mass attackers are male). Shouting simple, direct orders to others—such as “Tackle him!”—can sometimes break people out of a panic-induced passive state and motivate them to help. Ideally, one person grabs the perpetrator’s arms (and weapon) and drags him to the ground while another person or persons tackle him from behind. Then, if necessary, those available beat and stab the perp with any available object—such as a laptop computer or a ballpoint pen—until he is no longer a threat.

What about a scenario in which the perpetrator opens fire in front of a large crowd, such as a movie theater? Some people are too close to flee but too far to immediately attack the perp. In that case, my father suggests pelting the perp with whatever objects are at hand in an effort to surprise, distract, and disorient him—hopefully giving others a better chance to attack the perp. This idea springs from the work of military strategist John Boyd, who discussed the “OODA loop”—the process in which people observe, orient, decide and act.12 Boyd argued that disrupting a person’s OODA loop can give one the tactical advantage. By throwing something at an attacker, one may be able to get the perp out of action mode (killing people) and back into the modes of observation and orientation.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter objected that effectively attacking the perp would involve elaborate coordination among multiple parties that would be impossible in a true crisis.13 But coordination in such a crisis might be as simple as barking, “Attack the perp!” or “Tackle him!” to others. Simply taking action yourself might spur others to join you, absent any coordination. In some contexts, people who refuse to be victims may have more time to coordinate in more complex ways. For example, if an active shooter is in another part of the building, people in a room can coordinate to barricade the door and plan an attack should the perp break in.

After the fact, an expert in self-defense probably could look at any instance of self-defense and suggest improvements. The fact that, during a crisis, people are unlikely to respond with tactical perfection is hardly a reason for them not to respond as well as they can given their abilities and experience. Even the best possible tactical response may fail in a given circumstance, and even an unskilled response may succeed. The point is, in the relevant circumstances, attacking the perp is the only possible way to increase the odds of survival.

Is all of this unrealistic theory, or is it practical?

According to a 2013 report published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of 160 cases of an active shooter investigated, “In 21 incidents (13.1%), the situation ended after unarmed citizens safely and successfully restrained the shooter.” The report adds, “Of note, 11 of the incidents involved unarmed principals, teachers, other school staff and students who confronted shooters to end the threat.” By contrast, armed citizens (not in law enforcement) stopped the perpetrator in only five of the cases.14

To get a better idea of what unarmed citizens can do in practice, consider a few recent examples.

On September 30, 2015—just one day before the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon—an armed student entered Harrisburg High School in South Dakota. The school’s principal, Kevin Lein, struggled with the student, and the student shot him in the arm. Then the assistant principal, Ryan Rollinger, “tackled the teenage shooter and held him down with help from another staff member [activities director Joey Struwe] until police arrived,” reports the Argus Leader. School superintendant Jim Holbeck fears the student might have shot more people had staff not intervened: “You really never know what this student would have done if they hadn’t confronted him. If he already shot once, who knows?”15

On April 27, 2015, “A teacher in Washington state helped prevent what could have been a deadly school shooting when he tackled and restrained the suspect,” reports the Huffington Post. The school was North Thurston High; the teacher was Brady Olson. “The teacher and a school resource officer held the suspect until police arrived.”16

Then, of course, on August 21, 2015, two French men and three Americans subdued a murderous jihadist who was armed with “an AKM assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition, a 9mm handgun, a box-cutter and a bottle of gasoline.”17 Weaving together numerous media accounts, Wikipedia reports that one French man “attempted to restrain or disarm the gunman but fell to the floor in the ensuing struggle.” Then “[a]n American-born Frenchman, 51-year-old Mark Moogalian, attempted to wrest the rifle from the gunman, who then drew an automatic 9mm Luger pistol. Moogalian was shot through the back of the neck; seriously injured, he played dead.” Then three Americans—Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos—successfully attacked the perp. “Sadler told CNN that Skarlatos yelled ‘Get him!’ after which ‘Spencer immediately gets up to charge the guy, followed by Alek, then myself.’” Stone received some blade injuries in the process. “Skarlatos seized the assailant’s rifle and beat him in the head with its muzzle until the assailant was unconscious. A British passenger, 62-year-old Chris Norman, and a French train driver came to their aid to hold the gunman down.”18

Several points about the Paris attack are worth mentioning here. Attacks on the perp can have varying degrees of success. Although the first two men to attack the perp did not disable him, they may have been able to delay him from clearing a jammed rifle. The three Americans coordinated their attack with a minimum of planning: Essentially, one person yelled “Get him!” and the three men got him. True, two of the Americans were off-duty soldiers, so they probably had very good preparation and physical conditioning for such an attack. However, any three average people who followed a similar course stood a reasonable chance of success, particularly when others joined them.

During the Oregon shooting, in which nine people were murdered, apparently no one attempted to attack the perpetrator, although one man, Chris Mintz, heroically took other important defensive actions. To emphasize the point again: Reviewing the facts of this case from a tactical perspective does not imply that the victims were in any way to blame for the atrocity; the purpose is to try to figure out how others might respond with more effective tactics in possible future attacks.

Apparently Mintz took the most active role in responding to the crisis, urging people to leave and attempting to obstruct the attacker. The perpetrator shot Mintz multiple times (thankfully not fatally) as Mintz tried to block a door.19

What happened next is sickening: The perpetrator spent long agonizing moments talking to many of the victims before wounding or killing them. First, he verbalized his intent to select one student to receive an envelope before handing off the envelope. Then, as one wounded survivor reports, before the perpetrator shot people, “He had us all get up one by one and asked us what our religions were.”20 After the fact, in our calm living rooms and offices, we can conclude that, obviously, the strategy of sitting or standing around waiting to get shot is not tactically optimal, if the goal is to stay alive.

We can only speculate what might have happened if one of the students had shouted, “Get him!” and gone on the attack. Might that have broken others out of their panic-induced passivity? If, prior to the crisis, some of the students had watched a video on surviving an active shooter, might those students have been mentally able to take action and attack the perp?

I needn’t get into details of other cases here to draw a conclusion: In some cases of mass attacks, some of the intended or potential victims attack the perpetrator; in other cases, none of the victims do. In cases where intended or potential victims attack the perpetrator, sometimes they succeed and stop him from killing or killing again. In cases where victims do not attack the perpetrator, usually he stops killing people only when he kills himself or when the police show up and subdue him.

We do not honor the memories of the victims of mass attacks by refusing to draw lessons from the attacks that could help others save lives in the future. We honor their memories in part by taking reasonable steps to prevent future murders. Whatever else might be said about gun laws, mental illness, police action, and other matters, it is clear that, if caught in the horrific crisis of an active attacker, unarmed people can in certain circumstances take effective action to bring down and subdue the perpetrator.

Attacking the perpetrator might not save lives in all cases, but not attacking the perpetrator certainly will cost lives in many cases.

Unfortunately, unarmed self-defense in a case of mass attack is not something easily politicized, so it is not provocative enough for many politicians or journalists to discuss. It is shameful that many journalists chose to cover the issue only in relation to the politically-driven controversy of Ben Carson’s remarks. At least Carson’s remarks got more people talking about this vitally important issue.

Attack the perp. No, it is not as easy as it sounds. But, if more people prepare themselves mentally to attack the perp should the need arise, fewer people will die horrific deaths. If even one person’s life can be saved—and probably many people’s lives can be saved—then we need to act to educate people about unarmed self-defense in response to mass attacks.



1. See, for example, Greg Richter, “Lindsey Graham: Carson ‘Has No Idea What He Would Do’ in a Shooting,” Newsmax, October 7, 2015,

2. Alon Stivi’s remarks come from personal interviews on October 7 and October 8, 2015. Stivi’s biography may be found at his web site for Attack Countermeasures Training at My father, Linn Armstrong, frequently works with Stivi to conduct counter-terrorism and workplace safety classes in western Colorado. I have spent several days training with Stivi for firearms use and workplace safety.

3. For one detailed critique of Carson’s remarks on evolution, see Jerry A. Coyne, “Ben Carson on Evolution: An Ignorant (or Duplicitous) Presidential candidate,” Why Evolution Is True, September 24, 2015, For my critique of Carson’s remarks about Islam, see “Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views,”, September 21, 2015, For one account of Carson’s “gaffes,” see “To Ben Carson’s Fans, those ‘Gaffes’ Aren’t Gaffes,” Daily Kos, May 16, 2015,

4. Greg Richter, “Lindsey Graham: Carson ‘Has No Idea What He Would Do’ in a Shooting.”

5.Katherine Faulders, “How Ben Carson Appears to Be Second-Guessing Oregon Shooting Victims,” ABC News, October 7, 2015,

6. Alexandra Jaffe and Andrew Rafferty, “Ben Carson Says People Should Attack Active Shooters,” NBC News, October 7, 2015,

7. See, for example, Ashley Fantz, “NRA clarifies its stance on arming schools,” CNN, December 27, 2012,

8. Jordan Fabian, “Obama: Mass Shootings Are ‘Something We Should Politicize,’” The Hill, October 1, 2015,

9. For more examples of mass attacks in other countries, see David Harsanyi, “Actually, President Obama, Mass Killings Aren’t Uncommon In Other Countries,” Federalist, June 18, 2015, Much more could be said, of course, about the incidence and trends of mass attacks in the United States and in other countries.

10. The quoted line comes from Steve Neumann, “I’ve Developed a Paralyzing, Irrational Fear of Mass Shootings. I Bet I’m Not Alone,” Vox, October 2, 2015,

11. “Surviving an Active Shooter,” March 17, 2015, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,; “Crisis on Campus: Shots Fired,” August 20, 2013, New York State University Police,; “Surviving an Active Shooter Event—Civilian Response to Active Shooter,” February 10, 2015, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University,; “Run, Hide Fight: Surviving an Active Shooter Event—English,” July 23, 2012, City of Houston,; “Last Resort Active Shooter Survival Measures by Alon Stivi,” June 18, 2010, Attack Countermeasures Training, I found several of these videos through links provided by Randall Holcombe, “Be Prepared for Active Shooter Threats,” September 22, 2015, Independent Institute,

12. For one summary of Boyd’s work, see Brett and Kate McKay, “The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the OODA Loop,” September 24, 2015, Art of Manliness,

13. See Bryan Register’s Tweets of October 7, 2015, at

14. “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” September 16, 2013, Federal Bureau of Investigation,

15. Patrick Anderson, “Heroes emerge from shooting at Harrisburg High School,” October 1, 2015, Argus Leader,

16. Sebastian Murdock, “Hero Teacher Brady Olson Stops High School Shooter In Washington State,” Huffington Post Crime, April 28, 2015,

17. “Suspect in France Train Shooting Watched Jihadi Video Prior to Attack, French Authorities Say, August 25, 2015, Associated Press,

18. “2015 Thalys Train Attack,” Wikimedia, (accessed October 7, 2015).

19. Don Melvin, “Oregon Shooting Hero Tells Gunman, ‘It’s My Son’s Birthday Today,’” October 3, 2015, CNN,

20. Neal Karlinsky, Sabina Ghebremedhin, and Cassidy Gard, “Oregon Umpqua Shooting Survivor Recalls Terrifying Moments Inside Classroom,” October 5, 2015, ABC News,

Lessons from Martian Climate Change

Water flows on Mars, NASA announced September 28. “Using an imaging spectrometer on [the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes,” NASA reports. I first heard about this surface water from an August 19 video from Comic-Con (see minute 9:40), in which NASA representatives discuss Mars and The Martian film; some evidence for this water has been around for several years.

This is huge news with respect to potential human missions to Mars as well as to the potential for discovering life on Mars.

But how did Mars get so dry in the first place, and what does that phenomenon teach us about Earth?

I was somewhat amused to read the following Tweet: “‘Mars suffered climate change and lost its surface water.’ There are words to scare the s**t out of all living humans.” I agree with that sentiment, but not for the reasons the Tweeter presumably had in mind.

What the Tweeter probably thought was something like this: “Mars experienced climate change that would have been catastrophic for any life present and that likely prevented new life from developing. Earth, too, is experiencing some climate change, largely because of human activity, and this could lead to catastrophic results such as we see on Mars.”

Obviously, such a take on Martian climate change is a little silly. Mars lost almost all of its greenhouse gasses; Earth is gaining greenhouse gases. (Due mostly to human activity, carbon dioxide has risen from around 300 parts per million of the atmosphere, or 0.03 percent of the atmosphere, to 400 parts per million, or 0.04 percent.) Outside the realm of pure fantasy, not even the most hysterically alarmist predictions about Earth’s climate change predict a future remotely as dire as what happened on Mars.

But the extreme changes on Mars do offer a warning to humans. We’ll come back to that.

First, let’s review in brief what happened on Mars. As the geography of Mars makes evident, water once flowed in great abundance on Mars. But then Mars lost most of its atmosphere and the oceans boiled away. Why? Apparently Mars just didn’t have enough mass to hang on to its air, especially given the violence of meteor impacts, and the atmosphere dissipated. (Another theory I’d heard, that Mars’s weak magnetic field allowed solar winds to blow off the atmosphere, appears not to be much of a factor.)

The main lesson of Martian climate change, then, is that for the most part the universe is extremely hostile to life, and even places most hospitable to life may not stay that way. If life evolved on Mars, it was either killed off or driven underground by purely natural causes.

The Earth is not magically immune from such potential natural catastrophes. Indeed, less-severe natural catastrophes, ranging from earthquakes to hurricanes to volcanic eruptions, happen fairly routinely. Asteroid collisions have dramatically impacted the evolution of life on Earth—and a sufficiently large asteroid could destroy all life on Earth. At one point, humanity “damn near went extinct” due to an ice age likely caused by a supervolcano.

The lesson I take from this is that, to ensure the survival and expansion of our species long-term, humans absolutely must colonize space—and Mars is a great place to begin.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian novel, shares this view:

I want us to have a self-sufficient, human population somewhere other than Earth, because, twenty-five years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up. And, as long as our entire species is on one planet, we risk extinction. It’s not very likely, but it could happen. It could be plague, it could be a war, it could be a meteor strike or something like that. But, if we’re on two planets, it is practically impossible for us to die.

Similarly, in Welcome to Mars, Buzz Aldrin writes, “The pioneers who settle Mars will . . . ensure the long-term survival of life in our solar system. Earth faces challenges. If there were a disaster, Mars would give us a place to get resources or to make a new home” (p. 6).

Speaking of climate change, Aldrin has some intriguing ideas for pursuing human-made climate change on Mars:

Giant mirrors in orbit could direct . . . sunshine to heat Mars’s polar ice caps. A temperature increase of just a few degrees would thaw the carbon dioxide frozen there. . . . As the temperature rises, more carbon dioxide is released. . . . If the mirrors aren’t enough, we can knock an asteroid out of its orbit to slam into Mars. Some asteroids are rich in ammonia, another greenhouse gas. An impact would produce a lot more heat and carbon dioxide, too. Once it is warm enough for water on the surface, plants can grow. (pp. 88–89)

I’m not sure how well that would work long-term, especially given Mars’s apparent difficulty keeping its atmosphere. But, one way or another, humans can make Mars hospitable to life.

Sure, human activity brings with it certain risks, harms, and trade-offs. But these risks are nothing compared to the risks of humans not acting to expand and improve human life on Earth and, eventually, beyond.


The Martian Presents a Hopeful Future for Humanity

The Martian Film

Readers of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (which I reviewed for Objective Standard) knew that the science presented in the film would be highly realistic. (The major exception is the opening dust storm, which, as Weir has granted, is much more powerful than is possible in Mars’s thin air; Weir strayed from the science here for dramatic effect.)

We knew that the story would be a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

We also knew that the characters, particularly Watney, would be colorful and engaging.

What I did not know is whether the film would be very good. On one hand, it’s directed by Ridley Scott, and it stars Matt Damon and a superb supporting cast, so what could go wrong? On the other hand, lines such as Watney’s remark, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this” (added by screenwriter Drew Goddard, not Weir), could have come across as hokey in less talented hands. Was this film going to bring Weir’s enthralling tale fully to life or paint it by numbers?

I loved it. The film version of The Martian surpassed my hopes, which started out pretty high. I had been excited about the film since I first heard about it after reading the novel. In some ways, the film improves on the novel, as with its better-developed ending.

True, after an intense opening sequence, the film progresses a little slowly. But it builds steam as it develops its characters and reveals the enormity of the challenges that Watney faces. This is not your typical high-explosion, constant-motion (but ultimately meaningless) action flick; it is a story that is both exciting and deeply human.

Matt Damon is excellent. He nails the intensely emotional scenes as well as the funny ones. All of the lines, many of which a lesser actor would have bungled, come across as authentic and in-character—even the pirate jokes.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Jessica Chastain as the mission commander who plays a pivotal role in the rescue effort; the always-outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA official; Mackenzie Davis as a young NASA satellite operative who first discovers Watney is still alive; and Donald Glover as an innovative astrophysicist who hatches a plan to bring Watney home.

Also, Sean Bean has a nice role as the earth-stationed flight commander—and he doesn’t even die!

Both the Martian landscapes and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Watching this film, it’s easy to imagine yourself on Mars.

I love Watney’s determination and his sense of humor under enormous pressure.  But mostly I love The Martian‘s glimpse into the future of space colonization that we humans are destined to have—if only we choose to strive for that future. This is probably the most enjoyable film I’ll watch this year—and it may the most important film of the era.


Buzz Aldrin’s Delightful Guide for Young Martians

It is entirely possible that my son will be among the first Martians. I was therefore delighted to pick up a copy of Buzz Aldrin’s new guide for young Earthlings who aspire to visit Mars someday, move there, or at least learn more about our neighbor in the solar system. Aldrin wrote the book—Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet, published this year by National Geographic Kids—with the help of physicist and children’s author Marianne J. Dyson.

Aldrin invites young readers to join him on a visionary journey to travel to Mars and help build the first colony there. Colonists first rocket to the red planet on a six-month journey.

Then the crew lands on the new world. Aldrin stirs the imagination:

The jets kicked up a cloud of dust just like on the moon, too. [Remember, Aldrin walked on the moon on the same trip as Neil Armstrong.) It settled down faster here because there is more gravity here than on the moon. But the real difference is the sky. On the moon, the sky was black, even in the daytime. Here, the rosy color is like the dawning of a new day. (p. 53)

Colonists join their associates who arrived earlier to set up camp, then set off to explore Mars to find an ideal place for a new home. Finally everyone settles in and contemplates plans for building larger living areas and, eventually, for terraforming the surface.

Welcome to Mars by Buzz AldrinAround this simply told story, Aldrin weaves substantial background information about the history of Martian study, the science of getting to Mars and eventually living there, and the nature of the planet itself.

Because of this material, Aldrin’s book makes an excellent primer for busy adults, too. One thing I learned about was the “Aldrin Cycler,” a specialized spaceship that permanently orbits around the sun, passing close both to Mars and to Earth. Aldrin’s idea is to hop aboard a Cycler, which passes by Earth every twenty-six months, to ferry people and supplies to Mars. Although I’m not convinced that a Cycler is necessarily the way to go for the first colonists to Mars—Robert Zubrin has other ideas—it seems like an obviously good idea at least in the long-term.

I especially enjoyed one of Aldrin’s historical tidbits. In 1966, Carl Sagan coauthored a book claiming (Aldrin summarizes) that Mars’s moons “Phobos and Deimos might be artificial satellites left from an extinct Martian civilization” (p. 36). Fantasies about advanced life on Mars have died hard—but reasonable hope that we may eventually find simple life there, or at least evidence of simple life from the past, remains.

On a few points, the book seems wildly unrealistic, as with its speculation that people might someday ski down Martian gullies (p. 59). Given Aldrin’s own description of the horrific death anyone would face on Mars without the benefit of protective habitats or suits (p. 74), I doubt anyone would risk a cracked helmet for a joyride.

I was disappointed that Aldrin pays so little attention to the possibility of nuclear power on Mars (he does mention it in a paragraph on p. 69) and so much attention to politically popular but less reliable solar and wind energies (pp. 64, 68). Aldrin emphasizes solar and wind even while discussing the facts that the sun shines less brightly on Mars, sunlight varies substantially by season, dust storms obscure the sun for weeks at a time, and the atmosphere is very thin on Mars (p. 68). Given the thin atmosphere and seasonality of storms, Aldrin’s suggestion for mountaintop wind turbines seems particularly ridiculous. By contrast, Aldrin’s suggestion for a geothermal plant is intriguing, and it seems to be much more realistic if suitable conditions can be found (p. 69).

Despite its very minor flaws, I greatly enjoyed reading through Aldrin’s book. I look forward to reading it to my son in the coming years. But suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, if my son does go to Mars someday, he might stay there forever. As sad as that would be, maybe it’s about time we said goodbye to humanity’s next wave of pioneers.


An Elegant Solution for Storing Breast Milk

Breast Milk Storage

It’s great if babies can be exclusively breast fed from birth. But, for many of us parents, that just doesn’t work out, so we turn to pumping and, with that, breast milk storage.

My wife and my baby was born prematurely, so he started off with a bottle in the NICU, first with donated breast milk, then with my wife’s milk. He has never exclusively breast fed. Now that my wife is back to work, she pumps there and I bottle feed throughout the day.

As far as I can tell, Madela sets the standard in breast pumps, and our older model (donated by a friend) works great. (Contrary to advice from hospital staff, we found that the “hospital grade” pump isn’t actually much of an improvement; if anything, we prefer the home model.) But what about storage of all that pumped milk?

After some trial and error (including a late-night spilled cup of milk), we hit on a solution that works for us. It might work for you, too. (It is up to you to properly clean and sterilize whatever equipment you end up using and to check with qualified health professionals about all such matters.)

We tried bags, which are basically glorified ziplocks at a shockingly higher price. I didn’t like trying to pour milk out of those floppy things.

So we started storing milk in standard one-cup canning jars. But how do you get the milk out of the jar into the bottle? It’s too messy to try to pour straight out of the jar. At first we used syringes, but after a while those tend to stick. So we bought an eight-dollar plastic cap via Amazon, one that claims to be “FDA approved-Food Safe, BPA-free & Phthalates-free.” I don’t know what Phthalates are, but apparently I can rest assured they won’t end up in baby’s bottle.

This cap works great for us. It seals well on the jar, it has a tight cap on a hinge, and it pours the milk very well with no spillage.

Incidentally, we’ve found that one-cup canning jars with standard lids also work great to freeze extra milk—just be sure not to fill them too full so as to allow for ice expansion.

Sometimes with parenting, we’re finding, simple, inexpensive solutions can work wonders. We’ve found that to be the case with our capped jar approach to milk storage.


Using Evernote for Research

Evernote Interface

For a long time I’ve struggled to track and organize my research for various writing projects. My solution—for now, anyway—is to use Evernote to stash and organize articles and notes. I also use Evernote for my to-do lists, which works fairly well, and for a few other tasks.

Evernote is a type of software that combines features of a word processor and a database. (Another example of this type of software is Scrivener, which I’ve also started to use for writing.) It’s great for displaying multiple thumbnails of files at a time, allowing easy viewing of a given file, and organizing files by category.

Evernote has several advantages other other offerings of the type. Its web-based interface allows users to access their data on any web-connected device; its mobile apps allow easy syncing between mobile devices and desktops; and its web browser add-on “web clipper” enables easy storage and sorting of the contents of web pages. No longer do I have to worry about important articles disappearing on me; I just save a copy to Evernote. (Evernote also has a desktop app, but I didn’t see the point of using it.)

Unfortunately, a recent “upgrade” to Evernote’s web-based interface made the software less functional for me. Before, I found it easy to group multiple files by “notebook,” then to “stack” multiple notebooks into groups. With the upgrade, I found it too hard to display this hierarchy of files, so I ended up unstacking all my notebooks. For ease of use, this is how I recommend using Evernote: Put all your notes into notebooks, and don’t attempt further nesting of files.

Before I unstacked my notebooks, I didn’t use Evernote’s tag feature. Now I use tags. These are useful for grouping small numbers of like files together and for tying together files in different notebooks.

I do four main things with Evernote: collect research, write and collect notes about projects, collect information about personal business interactions, and maintain to-do lists. Let’s take these in turn.

Most of my notebooks are devoted to research topics. For example, I have a notebook for “Philosophy, Kant” and another for “Philosophy, Rand.” (This naming structure allows me to easily view related notebooks next to each other alphabetically.) I have a notebook for “Research, Abortion” and another for “Research, Capitalism.” (Someday I may get around to changing the word “research” to “policy.”)

When I come across an interesting article that I want to save, I cut-and-past it into a new note in the appropriate notebook, or I use Evernote’s web-clipping function (which I use with the Safari browser). Usually with the web-clipper, I find it useful to cut-and-paste the citation information as straight text into the “Add remark” box, then save the main text in “Simplified article” mode.

I use separate notebooks to record my personal notes on various topics. As examples, I have notebooks for “Project Notes, Religion” and “Project Notes, Roads.” Of course, it’s possible to use a single notebook to combine outside materials and personal notes. For example, I could put my collected articles as well as my own notes about roads into a unified folder. But I opted not to do that, because generally the number of articles I gather far outpace the number of notes that I write, so in a unified notebook my personal notes would get buried.

I use a “Personal, Business” notebook to record information about contractors, doctors, and other service providers with whom I interact.

Finally, I have two notebooks for to-do lists, “To Do New” and “To Do Archive.” I like using the archive file, because I can reproduce the contents of my list into a new list, then save the old list to the archives. That way I can go back and see my progress if I want. At this point, I have two notes in “To Do New,” my main to-do list and my to-write list, which lists the various writing projects I hope to take up.

Obviously there are lots of different ways to use Evernote, but I’ve found a way that works pretty well for me and that’s easy to maintain. I use the free “basic” level of service; two different pay-per-year levels offer more services, including sharing features that many businesses use. So far, the basic level has been ample for my needs.

I was surprised to see a total limit of 100,000 notes and 250 notebooks; I’ve already stored 897 notes in the short time I’ve been using Evernote. I asked via Twitter if the company plans to expand these limits. Evernote replied, “Not that we can publicly release.” But most users won’t need to worry about those limits for a long time.

For collecting and organizing research, as well as for various other tasks, Evernote works.

October 1, 2015 Update: Today I hit my monthly upload limit, which, for the free account, is 60 megabytes. The first, paid upgrade offers a full gigabyte—way more than I need. So my solution is to simply stop using the web clipper and cut-and-paste files into Evernote so as to avoid space-consuming images. You can find your monthly usage stats in your account summary.

Huemer on Strengthening the Chains of the Constitution

Michael Huemer
If American government was to be bound by the “chains of the Constitution,” then surely those chains have loosened if not snapped. Michael Huemer, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has some ideas for how to tighten those chains. He discussed these ideas July 13 at an event hosted by Liberty On the Rocks, Flatirons.

Huemer observes that structural and procedural Constitutional provisions (regarding how government functions) tend to be taken more seriously than are substantive Constitutional provisions (regarding what government may and may not do). So his ideas focus on changing government structures and procedures in the hopes of indirectly altering the substance of what government does.

He offers three main proposals. First, new legislation should require a two-thirds vote by Congress. Second, “there should be a negative legislature that has the power only of repealing laws.” Third, besides the Supreme Court, there should be a new Constitutional Court, “where the cases are decided by a jury of citizens,” that can initiate Constitutional review and that can mete out punishments to elected officials who violate the Constitution.

Generally I regard these as excellent ideas.

Huemer did an especially good job of explaining why the default should be for government to take no action—the opposite of today’s presumption. Government action, he stressed, involves coercing people. In general, he argued, it’s better to not coerce someone, even if coercion might be justified in a given case, than it is to coerce someone unjustly.

Huemer likened modern government to a Medieval doctor. Society, like the human body, is enormously complex, and making a random change to it is more likely to do harm than good. Medieval doctors were more likely to harm their patients than to help them, Huemer noted, and, similarly, government actors are more likely to do harm than good. Thus, he concluded, it’s good to move the default closer to government taking no action via the institutional changes he suggests. (Huemer offered many additional arguments to buttress his case; for these I’ll point individuals to the video of his presentation.)

I think Huemer went off track only a few times. The most important example is his treatment of the separation of powers. True, as he noted, different government institutions very often support rather than oppose each other. But that does not change the fact that the separation of powers, instituted not only in the tripartite federal government but in federal-state divisions and in representational elections, very often stops or slows the imposition of bad government policies. For example, the Supreme Court threw out much of FDR’s New Deal, and more recently it threw out censorship of political speech via the Citizens United decision.

Huemer errs in this matter largely because he assumes government entities generally seek to expand their own power. True, they often do. But very often government actors are driven by ideological convictions, not (or not only) by a lust for personal power. Because people in different government entities  are motivated by ideological convictions (to a lesser or greater degree), the separation of powers works somewhat better than Huemer thinks.

Another problem with Heumer’s presentation is that his idea of a “negative legislature” needs a lot more development to be viable. It would be a straight-forward fix if it were the case that new laws always expand government powers on net, while repeals of laws always reduce them. But that’s not the case. New laws very often curtail government powers made possible by preexisting laws. For example, federal civil rights laws preempted state-level discrimination laws—and that was a pro-liberty development. In Colorado a few years back, new legislation curtailed the power of police to seize property through asset forfeiture. To make matters more complex, generally old statutory language is removed via the passage of a new bill. So it’s not clear whether a “negative legislature,” unless its scope were very clearly and appropriately defined, would on net act to expand or reduce government power.

Huemer also suggested that he supports anarchy over limited government; he did not get into that issue during his talk, so I won’t get into it here. I’ll have more to say against anarchy later.

In all, Huemer’s talk is well worth watching. It is an excellent example of how an academic can make rigorous arguments to a popular audience. Academics should interact with the thinking public, and vice versa—as such provides checks and balances within American intellectual discourse.


Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views

“Should a president’s faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?” That’s what NBC’s Chuck Todd recently asked Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.

The obvious answer is that of course a candidate’s religious beliefs should matter to voters. For example, if a candidate wanted to outlaw homosexuality on the basis that it violates Biblical teachings, most Americans (including practically every leftist) would hold that such a religious belief properly disqualifies the candidate for office.

But that’s not what Carson said. Carson said a candidate’s faith should matter to voters “if it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America.” He added, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Carson’s answer introduced two serious confusions, and few of his critics have clearly sorted out the relevant issues. So let’s sort them out.

Carson first confused a candidate’s professed faith with a candidate’s particular religious views. There is a big difference between a candidate professing affiliation with some religious tradition and advocating particular faith-based policies.

Obviously, in today’s context, professed affiliation with any of the world’s major religions, such as Christianity (including its major variants such as Mormonism), Judaism, or Islam ought not automatically turn off a voter. Now, there are some religions, including Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses, that I regard as sufficiently kooky that I would never vote for a candidate who professed that religion. But, let’s face it, into the indefinite future nearly all elected officials in America will adhere to some religion or other, so we just can’t rule out candidates only because they profess religious affiliation.

I can imagine a future in which, rather than trump their religious affiliations, candidates run from religion—and that would be a huge improvement. Rather than candidates emphasizing their religious faith, they should say, in effect, “I’m culturally religious, but I don’t take religious beliefs very seriously, and I would never seek to impose religious beliefs by force of law.” Or they should openly profess no religious affiliation.

What voters should worry about are the particular religious beliefs a candidate holds and what those beliefs imply for the policies a candidate likely would pursue in office.

For example, to my mind, Carson’s faith-based rejection of evolution, by itself, disqualifies him for the presidency (even though he has distanced himself from “young earth” creationism).

Of course, Carson’s follow-up claim that every American Muslim wishes to impose Sharia law in America is absurd. Globally, Muslims express a vast range of political views. As I’ve expressed on Twitter, I’d rather vote for a nominal Muslim than for a fundamentalist Christian, other things equal.

Carson second confused what voters should take into account with what government should permit. As many of Carson’s critics have pointed out, the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for office.

At first it was unclear whether Carson was talking about a religious test or about advice for voters. But, in follow-up remarks, Carson said the president should be “sworn in on a stack of Bibles, not a Koran.” That’s pretty obviously the establishment of a religious test.

Unfortunately, some of Carson’s critics are hiding behind the “religious test” clause to pretend that all criticisms of a candidate’s religion are somehow off-limits. But obviously there is a huge difference between an individual voter judging a candidate’s religious views and government barring people of certain religions from running for office.

In this vein, for example, consider Bernie Sanders’s ridiculous comment: “You judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin, but on their ideas on what they stand for.” So, Sanders implies, a religion is akin to skin color, something inherited—which is obvious nonsense. A religion is a set of ideas pertaining to the nature of reality and man’s place in it, and, as such, it is something that individuals rightly judge in and out of the voting booth.

The left is missing a golden opportunity to make Carson drink his own medicine. If Muslim candidates should be judged—and rejected—for seeking to impose tenets of religious faith by force of law, then so should Christian candidates. And that standard would wipe out most of the current GOP contenders, including Carson himself.

An Idea for Inexpensive, Classy, Personal Photo Cards

Inexpensive Personalized Photo Cards
In today’s digital age, a hand-written note often stands out. But cards from the store are expensive and impersonal. An alternative is to print out personalized cards. But most home printers do a poor job printing photos on appropriate paper, places such as are great for running many copies of the same thing but bad at printing one-offs, and places such as Shutterfly print nice one-offs but they tend to be a little pricey.

My wife and I came up with a low-cost alternative, and we’re thrilled with the results. However, the idea does requires some design savvy. My wife is a graphic designer by trade, so we have Photoshop. You’ll need that or comparable software to get the job done, or else you’ll need to call in a favor from a designer or pay someone.

The idea is simply to print 3×4 inch photos from your collection (or from the public domain or Creative Commons) and glue a photo on a nice, blank card.

Why 3×4 inch? I’ve found that the least expensive photo prints are 4×6 inch (at Costco I pay just nine cents for a single photo). But that’s too large for your average card. So I asked my wife to place two photos evenly in a 4×6 inch grid (at 300 dpi), so one printed photo cut in half yields two cards. We made a large set these images, drawing on years of photographs.

I’ve found nice, blank cards for as low as a quarter each (I got mine at Michael’s), so the total cost of a card can be as low as thirty cents—much less than you’ll pay for good cards anywhere else, especially personalized ones.

I had some nice scenic photos from my own collection, as well as some great shots from my step-dad’s and grandparents’ collections. I asked my wife to add a credit line to the images, and the result is a set of intensely personal, attractive cards that bring back cherished memories for me and, I hope, for recipients as well.

Krannawitter’s Elegant Solution to Regulatory Overreach

Thomas Krannawitter
Thomas Krannawitter has a straight-forward but far-reaching proposal for reforming America’s overreaching regulatory state: Turn every federal regulatory agency into an advisory group, with the power to advise Congress but not pass or enforce regulations.

Krannawitter, formerly a professor at Hillsdale College and Colorado Christian University, presented his idea, and the reasons behind it, September 14 at Liberty on the Rocks, Flatirons. He is also working on a book on the topic.

Krannawitter began with a brief history of American governance. The Constitution, he said, is based on “wide, deep, mutual civic trust”—that is, trust in our fellow citizens as they pursue their own rights-respecting affairs—and deep distrust of those who wield government power. Hence, government officials, according to the Founders, should be bound by the “chains of the Constitution.”

By contrast, the regulatory state that arose early in the Twentieth Century was based on the notion that unelected, “scientific” regulators should act unchecked to chain the citizenry. Now government “regulates every aspect of human life conceivable,” Krannawitter said.

Next Krannawitter explained why, in his view, the regulatory state is unconstitutional. The Constitution vests legislative power solely in Congress, he explained, and it does not authorize Congress to delegate that power to any other entity. Although widely rejected today, his view is consistent with the original understanding of the Constitution. As legal scholar Rob Natelson writes in The Original Constitution, the Constitution “did not authorize Congress to delegate its functions to administrative agencies or to anyone else.”

But, as Krannawitter admitted, today many people simply don’t take the Constitution seriously. (I’d say that most people care about aspects of the Constitution but interpret it very loosely to fit their policy goals.) So it is crucially important to emphasize to the American people the practical case for reining in the regulatory state, he suggested.

Krannawitter made a convincing case given the short time he had to make it. (I expect his book will go into much greater detail.) Here I’ll highlight some of his main points:

  • Regulations act on the presumption of guilt. The regulated must continually prove to the regulators that they are in compliance with the regulations, or else they are treated as guilty of violating them.
  • Regulatory agencies overturn the separation of powers, incorporating legislative, executive, and even judicial powers in a single body.
  • Regulations tend to entrench the status quo and cut off innovative approaches to solving problems.
  • Whereas tort law partners responsibility with property rights, regulations often act to shield the regulated from responsibility—because they can give the excuse that they were in “regulatory compliance.”
  • Regulatory agencies tend to emphasize problems that they can “fix” so they can expand their budgets. “They’re not rewarded for success, they’re rewarded for failure,” Krannawitter said.
  • Unlike private business owners, who have a stake in the success or failure of their businesses, regulators have little or no personal stake in the consequences of their actions.

Krannawitter made a few missteps in his presentation. For example, he claimed that “regulations never drive prices down.” Usually regulations act to drive up prices, but not always. Anyway, whether regulations tend to drive prices up or down is peripheral to the question of whether regulations are appropriate. The proper purpose of government is to protect people’s rights, not to enforce or “encourage” (by force) bureaucratically approved price levels.

On the whole, though, Krannawitter did a fine job presenting an enormously complex topic in its essentials. Although his proposal for fixing the problem is politically impossible given the current class of Congressional “leaders,” and although it would not be a panacea even if passed, it is well worth promoting if only to encourage discussion about the many, deep problems of America’s regulatory state. Turn regulatory agencies into advisory committees. It’s a start.

Finally I Found a Use for Twitter Favorites

Twitter Favorites

I tolerate Facebook, but I love Twitter. Having posted nearly twenty-three-thousand Tweets over the years, I use Twitter almost daily to track the news and views of the day and to comment about it.

But one thing I never got was Twitter’s “favorite” feature. I thought, if you like another person’s post, why not just retweet it? A retweet notifies not only the person who posted it but everyone else who follows me.

But then I became a father, and I found that using my mobile device (my iPhone) one-handed often came in much handier than before. Thankfully, mobile Twitter allows for the use of lists, which I find essential for navigating Twitter. But a mobile does not allow for the flexibility of a desktop in terms of opening multiple windows, saving articles to Evernote, and the like.

My solution? I now use the “favorite” feature to track Tweets I want to check out later. I can read my lists on my mobile, read, retweet, or ignore the Tweets I have time to check then, and favorite Tweets I want to check out later.

So, earlier today, I favorited a few Tweets while feeding my son a bottle, then strapped my son in his Moby for a nap and loaded up my favorited Tweets on my desktop. (Actually, I use an Apple laptop exclusively now, but usually I use it the same way I used to use a dedicated desktop, so that’s how I usually think of it.)

Some favorited Tweets I retweeted, others I used to track news stories (such as a coming fight in Colorado over the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), and others I discovered to be not too interesting, after all.

In any case, I unfavorited the entire list when I was through. Basically, I used my favorites list as something like a Twitter inbox, then achieved “Twitter inbox zero” by clearing my favorites. I could also just leave everything favorited, but then I’d have to track where I left off, which I don’t want to do.

With this new use of Twitter favorites, Twitter for me just got a lot more flexible—ideal given my more adventurous schedule with baby.

A Great Course for Helping Children Learn Self-Control

How can parents help their children learn self-control? As a new father, I’m keenly interested to learn. (I’m also interested in improving my own self-control.) I was thrilled, then, to discover the Great Courses offering, “Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive” (currently on sale), taught by developmental psychologist Peter Vishton.

The course features twenty-four half-hour lectures, the first of which (on which I’ll focus) covers helping young children learn basic motor skills and older children learn self-control. Other lectures cover topics such as getting kids to eat their vegetables and the pros and cons of video games.

Vishton discusses the importance of “tummy time,” placing a supervised infant on his tummy so he can build muscles and coordination and, eventually, crawl. In this segment, I was especially interested in Vishton’s cross-cultural comparisons of swaddling practices and efforts to help infants develop.

To me, far more interesting was Vishton’s discussion of impulse control. Among other things, Vishton discusses the famous “marshmallow experiment,” in which children could eat a small treat immediately or wait for a larger treat. I had heard about this before, but Vishton fills in many fascinating details. For example, he describes how, at age three, most children were bad at delaying gratification, while, by age seven, most children were pretty good at it. He discusses a follow-up study finding that children who were good at controlling their impulses tended to be more successful later in life by a variety of measures.

So how can parents help? Vishton discussed a study of children taking Taekwondo, a type of martial art. Classes that emphasized self-control, the study found, helped children be more self-controlled generally. Another study that Vishton mentioned found similar results for yoga classes.

In all, the lecture surpassed my expectations. The production quality is fantastic, with good lighting and sets and an excellent lecturer. The video streaming was good overall, with just one glitch that resolved when we went back a minute.

This was the first set of video I’ve purchased from Great Courses. I’d purchased audio before, long ago, and decided to invest in some video courses on history, music, math, and science. I’m glad I added Vishton’s course to the mix.

I have just one complaint about the first lecture. Vishton discusses Taekwondo as an activity a parent might choose for a child. But what about what the child wants? As Craig Biddle writes in his recent article on parenting, “because our children’s use of their faculty of choice is what enables them to live proper human lives, we should enable them to choose their own values within the range of reasonable, life-serving, developmentally appropriate alternatives.” I would have enjoyed hearing Vishton’s thoughts on allowing a child to choose which activities to pursue and on whether and in what ways a parent should encourage a child to pursue activities that foster self-control. Without such a discussion, some parents might confuse fostering self-control with fostering mindless obedience. I’ll be interested to hear if Vishton addresses such matters in subsequent lectures in the series.

That minor complaint aside, I’m thrilled with the course, and look forward to watching more of the lectures from this and other courses. And, now that I’ve finished this brief review, I think indulging in a piece of chocolate is entirely appropriate.


The Expectant Parent’s Guerrilla Guide to Preeclampsia

c-sectionTrust me on this one: You do not want to first learn about preeclampsia the night your wife is diagnosed with a severe case of it, resulting in an emergency Caesarian delivery of your child.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Here’s what happened. In January, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant. This was something of a surprise, because we had been unable to get pregnant for years. What I think happened is that my wife’s fibroid embolization procedure in 2012 cleared a blockage (perhaps of the fallopian tubes), eventually allowing the pregnancy. We signed up at Mountain Midwifery near Denver, went to classes there, and planned on a normal delivery around August 15.

That’s not how things turned out. We went in to the Midwifery on July 10, and attendants there got high blood pressure readings for my wife of 163/96. This was a surprise, as my wife had not previously had trouble with high blood pressure. I didn’t know what was going on, and I had no idea how to gauge the seriousness of the reading. An attendant also tested my wife’s urine, and it showed high protein counts—an indication of possible kidney problems.

The Midwifery sent us to Swedish Hospital. The Midwifery’s relationship with Swedish to handle emergencies is a major reason why we chose the Midwifery. The thinking is that, for most cases of child delivery, you don’t need the intensive medical intervention of a hospital setting, but, in a small fraction of cases, you really do want access to all the technology and expertise that Western medicine offers. We turned out to be in the minority.

We saw a doctor at Swedish, and she confirmed that my wife had high blood pressure. She ordered an ultrasound to check the health of the fetus; thankfully, he was fine. She also rechecked my wife’s urine, and again found elevated protein.

My wife had preeclampsia. At the time, I had no idea what that meant. One thing I soon learned is that there are mild and severe forms of it. At first it was not clear where we were on that spectrum. At first, the doctors thought they might be able to send us home with some medications and deliver in a couple weeks. But, after my wife’s blood pressure did not respond well to medication, we heard the diagnosis of severe preeclampsia. That narrowed our options to inducing delivery right away or going in for a C-section. We started the induction process, but then, when a doctor found the fetus was breech (head up), we started prepping for a C-section.

One thing I appreciate about the staff at Swedish is that they gave us the information and the space to make an informed decision. Going in for a C-section was not an easy option to face, especially given that my wife had read extensively on traditional vaginal birth and was committed to that path. When I asked the staff to give us a few minutes to absorb the information and discuss our options, they gave us the space we needed.

The decision came down to two main facts. First, my wife’s preeclampsia was not going to improve, and was likely to get worse, until she delivered the baby. Second, the baby was breech, meaning that a vaginal birth was unlikely anyway. Everyone at Swedish was on board with the C-section, and so was our primary care doctor (with whom I was able to speak by phone). That wasn’t the path we had planned or thought much about, but, we soon realized, it was the medically optimal path for us given the circumstances. We both felt that we were making an informed decision and that we remained actively in control of our health. I will always be grateful to the staff at Swedish for giving us the information and time we needed to reach the conclusion on our own, rather than trying to push us into the procedure before we understood the relevant issues and had the time to absorb the emotional shock.

We went in for the C-section around two in the morning of July 11. My wife remained awake, and I could observe both sides of the sheet: my wife’s face and the doctors at work. Watching the C-section was another shock for me. What I had imagined is a doctor gently slicing open the belly, then reaching in with fingertips and gently pulling the baby out. But “gentle” is just not a word that applies to a C-section. I tried hard to conceal my shock so my wife couldn’t see it on my face.

The process was much more—shall we say active—than I had imagined. The main surgeon and her assistant forcefully cut through the belly, then the uterus, then pulled out the baby a limb at a time. At one point, it seemed that the surgeon’s whole arms disappeared into my wife’s belly. I thought for sure the baby would end up with broken bones (of course he didn’t, although he did have some bruising). I vividly remember my baby with his entire body out of the womb except for his head, which remained stuck inside. It was quite a process just to get the head out. Of course, during this process tubes sucked away the blood and amniotic fluid.

Child Birth Swedish HospitalFinally, baby delivered, the doctors stitched back together my wife’s uterus—as it sat atop her belly. “Is that normal?” I asked; I was assured it is. I even saw a couple of fibroids left from the embolization procedure. One larger fibroid was on the bottom of the uterus, which might have made a normal vaginal birth difficult or impossible, even had my wife not had preeclampsia.

I’ll pause here to praise the lead surgeon, Susan Peck. Her work during the surgery, as well as her interactions with us before and after the surgery, were outstanding. I’m convinced she shaved several weeks off my wife’s recovery time with her skillful work. “Beautiful” is sort of an odd word to refer to a surgical scar, but it is in fact beautiful as a mark of excellent work, and several staff members at Swedish used the term in that context, as did I.

My son owes his life largely to two doctors: Brooke Spencer, who performed the embolization procedure and thereby made his conception possible, and Susan Peck, who performed the C-section and thereby made his delivery possible.

The delivery finally over, my wife went to recovery while my son went to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). I spent the rest of the night wandering between my wife’s room and the baby’s room.

So what is preeclampsia? Please note that I am not a doctor or health professional of any kind, so nothing I discuss here is intended as medical advice. As far as I can tell, no one really knows what causes preeclampsia. They do know how to treat it, thankfully.

“Eclampsia” refers to seizures during pregnancy. So a preeclamptic woman is one at risk of suffering seizures or stroke. Here’s a summary from the Preeclampsia Foundation:

Preeclampsia is a disorder that occurs only during pregnancy and the postpartum period and affects both the mother and the unborn baby. Affecting at least 5-8% of all pregnancies, it is a rapidly progressive condition characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. Swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches and changes in vision are important symptoms; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. . . .

Globally, preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. By conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year.

Notably, my wife showed no external symptoms of the disease. But for the blood pressure test and subsequent tests for her kidneys and liver, we would not have known she was preeclamptic. That’s horrifying in retrospect, because I don’t know how long my wife had the problem (her previous blood pressure check was three weeks prior), and I imagine what might have happened had we not caught the disease when we did.

As Mayo points out, the precise causes of preeclampsia are unclear. One theory I heard is that the genetics of the placenta (and possibly the fetus) somehow trigger an autoimmune response (or something similar) in the woman.

The cure for preeclampsia is to give birth. However, as I learned, the “cure” can take some time to take hold. Doctors put my wife on a twenty-four hour magnesium drip soon after delivery to protect her from stroke and seizure. With the drip and with blood pressure medications, finally they got my wife’s blood pressure under control. However, once she went off the drip, we had another scary night with high blood pressure readings, so doctors put her back on the drip and increased the dosages of her other meds.

In all, we spent eight days in the hospital, a grueling slog that felt like it would never end. (Note to hospital equipment designers: Please stop making every single last piece of equipment beep unnecessarily and incessantly.)  Apparently, such severe residual preeclamptic symptoms are fairly rare in patients, so our doctors struggled a bit to get the meds right.

My wife continued to take blood pressure medication for another three weeks at home, until finally her readings returned to normal.

While my wife recovered from preeclampsia, my son developed in the NICU. The nurses there are excellent, and they helped train me to feed and care for my son.

We were delighted to learn that, thanks to the Mother’s Milk Bank, our son would be able to drink donated breast milk until my wife’s milk came in. This was a huge relief, as I was slightly horrified the last time I read the ingredients list of formula. I was so grateful that our son could have the best available nutrition.

At 35 weeks, our son was a premie but a relatively developed one. Some babies in the unit were far younger. Our son needed a feeding tube at first, in addition to pressurized air to help him breath. He also got the “hot box” and the jaundice light for a few days.

Our son spent ten days in the NICU, two days longer than my wife spent in the hospital. We were thankful to get everyone home, yet I was also grateful that we could stay at the hospital when we needed to. In general, we were extremely happy with Swedish from the moment we walked in the door until, finally, we drove away.

I had spent all my time planning for a “normal” vaginal birth in mid-August, so an emergency Caesarian delivery in early July was a difficult thing to adjust to. The time in the hospital was extremely stressful and exhausting. And we were in the middle of some major home projects—I thought I still had five more weeks—so coming home was not the restful and serene experience I had envisioned. But we made it through fine, and the results are excellent. We didn’t take quite the path we had planned, but we arrived at the same destination; ours is a success story.

So what are some of the take-home lessons for other expectant parents?

1. Learn the basics about preeclampsia early in pregnancy, so you are better equipped to handle it if it happens to you.

2. Plan for a “normal” delivery—I highly recommend the Mountain Midwifery if you’re in the Denver area—but have a contingency plan in case something goes wrong. The Midwifery’s contingency plan is to send patients with complications to Swedish, and, for us, that worked spectacularly well.

3. If you’re pregnant, consider buying a home blood pressure kit and taking your pressure every day or two. One doctor advised us to sit still for five minutes and have your arm level with your heart to take a pressure reading. If I had it to do over again, I’d take regular home readings to supplement doctors’ readings. That way, I’d have a better ability to notice sudden changes and promptly seek professional guidance if needed.

4. If you do end up with severe preeclampsia, take heart that modern doctors know how to handle it. You want to take the disease seriously, but there’s no need to worry excessively about it, given the technologies and expertise of modern medicine.

5. Be prepared for contingencies. Get your “to go” bag ready early on. Include earplugs and eye shades, as sleeping in a hospital can be challenging. Get your house in order early if you can. Line up someone to watch your house and your pets if necessary.

6. Prep yourself for the potential stresses of a hospital visit. During the first night at the hospital, I did not sleep a wink, so I started the process utterly exhausted. It was a very busy and stressful time.

7. Be an advocate for yourself or your patient while respecting the time and expertise of hospital staff. Generally, we had very positive interactions with everyone at Swedish—something made easier because Swedish is an excellent hospital. However, I had a couple of unnecessarily testy exchanges with doctors, largely because I was tired and stressed; I later apologized to those doctors and we resumed a good working relationship.

8. Do what you can to get mother with baby, but recognize the limitations of the hospital setting. At first, I did not understand why baby could not be in the same room as mother. Then it became apparent to me: The NICU is very specialized, as is the Labor and Delivery ward, so sometimes it’s not feasible to keep mother and baby together. That said, do try to facilitate meetings of mom and baby until they can get into the same room or come home.

To me, preeclampsia was terrifying. But largely that’s because I didn’t know what it is or how doctors treat it. If you’re an expectant parent, do yourself a favor and spend a bit of time reading about the disease and preparing for the possibility of going through it. Then you can take comfort in the knowledge that most pregnant women don’t get preeclampsia, and, if a pregnant woman does get it, doctors are in a great position to effectively treat it. Preeclampsia is a problem for some women, but a manageable one with modern medicine.


What Is Ayn Rand’s “New” Novel, “Ideal?”

Ideal by Ayn Rand
A new publication of a work of one of the 20th century’s most read (and most controversial) novelists is big news. Ideal is the work at issue; Ayn Rand is the author. So what is Ideal?

Ideal is not new; it was written in 1934 and revised as a play over the next year or two. (The play wasn’t produced until 1989.) What’s new is the publication of Rand’s early novelization of the story.

The play was published in 1983 in The Early Ayn Rand. The new publication contains the novelization which preceded the play—and which is substantially less polished—as well as a reprint of the play. The oddity, then, is that the “new” work is in rougher shape than is the previously published version of the work.

What, then, is the purpose of publishing an older version of the same basic story? Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s heir, suggests two main reasons in his introduction to the new work. First, a publication of one of Ayn Rand’s earliest works, and in two different versions at that, may offer valuable insights into her intellectual and literary development. Second, a novel offers a reader a complete, self-contained experience in a way that a play cannot.

On this latter point, Peikoff explains:

By itself, a script is not a work of art or a genre of literature. Novel and play alike, being complete, enable you fully to enter and experience the world they create. But the script by itself does not: it omits the essence in this context of literary art; it is written for perception (to be heard from a cast of actors seen on a stage), yet by itself it is detached from any such perception.

As an indication of just how substantially Rand revised the play relative to the preliminary novel, consider Peikoff’s description of a section:

In Chapter 3 of the novel, the central character is Jeremiah Sliney, an ignorant, dialect-speaking farmer. On her typescript, even before she started the play, AR slashed out the whole chapter, with ruthless lines signifying emphatic rejection. . . . Dropping Sliney from the play, she instead took the name of a son-in-law of his, who had been an incidental character, and made him the scene’s central character. In this reincarnation, Chuck Fink [the new character] has an ideological identity: he is a member of the Communist Party.

By any standard, that is a major change. Yet the “new” publication contains the original text, despite Rand’s rejection of it. Peikoff writes, “Despite [Rand]’s deletion of Slinky, I have left him in the novel just as he was in its first draft.” Peikoff puts readers on notice, then, that this novelization does not reflect a polished, final work that Rand herself approved. Rather, it reflects a work in progress.

Why did Rand develop the material into a play rather than into a revised novel? I had assumed that the reason had something to do with Rand’s anticipation of getting a play produced. But Peikoff suggests literary reasons. First, Peikoff suggests, the beauty of the central character is integral to the story, and that is probably better shown than described. Second, the play format seems to have allowed Rand to introduce a wide array of minor characters more perceptually and therefore more briskly.

What is Ideal about? Peikoff offers a good summary in notes published with the 1983 version:

[Ideal is] a story in which a famous actress, so beautiful that she comes to represent to men the embodiment of their deepest ideals, actually enters the lives of her admirers. She comes in a context suggesting that she is in grave danger. Until this point, her worshippers have professed their reverence for her—in words, which cost them nothing. Now, however, she is no longer a distant dream, but a reality demanding action on their part, or betrayal.

“The theme is the evil of divorcing ideals from life,” Peikoff writes there.

That is a theme well worth contemplating in novel form, even if the novel in question does not reflect Ayn Rand in mature literary form.

Colorado’s Orwellian Consumer Use Tax Statutes

If you live in Colorado, likely you are technically a criminal—and possibly a felon—under Colorado tax law. By my reading of Colorado statutes, you’re a criminal if you’ve purchased items from out of state, either while traveling or through mail order (such as through Amazon), on which sales tax has not been collected, if you have not paid the “consumer use tax” on the item. Due to widespread ignorance of the relevant tax laws and lack of enforcement, most people do not pay the “consumer use tax”—or even know they’re legally supposed to pay it.

The Colorado legislature could implement a relatively simple fix for this problem. As I write in an article for Complete Colorado (also published by the Greeley Tribune), the legislature could exempt, “say, a person’s first $6,000 per year in out-of-state purchases—that’s $500 per month—from consumer use taxes.” That simple reform would turn many or most Coloradans from criminals into non-criminals.

I’ve been amazed by how many people are unaware of the consumer use tax laws. I talked with one state legislator who had never even heard of this tax. (I wonder how many state legislators technically are criminals under the law.) I talked with a former state legislator who claimed the consumer use tax is due only for items purchased from businesses with an in-state presence—which is not the case. (Out-of-state retailers have to collect Colorado sales tax if they have a Colorado presence, such as a retail outlet or warehouse, but this isn’t relevant to the consumer use tax.) So let’s explore what the rules are.

Here’s how the Colorado Department of Revenue summarizes the tax:

Consumer use tax must be paid by Colorado residents and businesses on purchases (items used for personal or business purposes, not resold) that did not include Colorado sales tax, such as those made over the Internet, by mail order, or by telephone. Consumer use tax is payable to the state by individuals and businesses when sales tax is due but has not been collected. Individuals and businesses have always been required to pay sales or use tax on taxable purchases from out-of-state vendors if the item is sold, leased, or delivered in Colorado for use, storage, distribution, or consumption in the state.

Colorado state use tax is the same rate as the sales tax. With proof of payment, sales tax paid to another state may be credited against state use tax due in Colorado for a particular item. Use tax is also collected by some local governments and special districts.

And here’s what various statutes say (as linked via the Colorado legislature page):

39-26-202(b): On and after January 1, 2001, there is imposed and shall be collected from every person in this state a tax or excise at the rate of two and ninety one-hundredths percent of storage or acquisition charges or costs for the privilege of storing, using, or consuming in this state any articles of tangible personal property purchased at retail.

39-26-204(1)(b) [Article 26, Sales and Use Tax; Part 2, Use Tax]: (b) Every person who is subject to the provisions of this part 2 who uses, stores, or consumes tangible personal property not in the conduct of a business, which is purchased either inside or outside this state, who has not paid the sales or use tax imposed by this article to a retailer, shall make a return and remit the tax annually, at the time the Colorado income tax of such person is due and payable as provided in article 22 of this title, on forms prescribed by the executive director, showing in detail the tangible personal property stored, used, or consumed by said persons within this state for the preceding taxable year.

(c) All such returns shall be subscribed by the taxpayer or his agent and shall contain a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury in the second degree.

39-26-206: Any person who willfully fails or refuses to make the return required in section 39-26-204, or who makes a false or fraudulent return, or who willfully fails to pay any tax owing by him, and any person who aids or abets another in an attempt to evade such tax, shall be punished as provided by section 39-21-118.

39-21-118: (1) Any person who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax administered by the department or the payment thereof, in addition to other penalties provided by law, is guilty of a class 5 felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-401, C.R.S., or shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred thousand dollars, or five hundred thousand dollars in the case of a corporation, or by both such fine and imprisonment, together with the costs of prosecution.

(2) Any person required, or any person who purports to be required, under any title administered by the department to collect, account for, or pay over any tax, who willfully fails to collect or truthfully account for or pay over such tax, including, but not limited to, willfully making a materially false statement in connection with an application for a refund of any tax for the purpose of falsely obtaining a refund of such tax, in addition to other penalties provided by law, is guilty of a class 5 felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-401, C.R.S., or shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred thousand dollars, or five hundred thousand dollars in the case of a corporation, or by both such fine and imprisonment, together with the costs of prosecution.

(2.5) Any person who through gross negligence or recklessness makes a materially false statement in applying for a refund pursuant to section 39-26-703 or any other person who makes a false statement in connection with an application for a refund is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than ninety days, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

By my reading of Colorado statutes, then, every Coloradan who buys items out of state, on which sales tax has not been collected, is legally required to pay the consumer use tax. (Please note that I am not a lawyer, and the statutes can be very confusing and difficult to interpret. To date, though, no one has offered any evidence that my reading is wrong.)

But are Coloradans who don’t pay the use tax actually felons? Note that statute 39-21-118(1) refers to “willful” evasion of the tax. This presents the Kafkaesque scenario in which, if you don’t know about the use tax, you’re not a felon, but if you do know about it and don’t pay it, you are a felon. So it could very well be that simply by reading this article and learning you’re legally supposed to pay the consumer use tax, you have become a felon (you’re welcome).

Obviously, what is “willful” as opposed to unwillful is largely a matter of interpretation. And what is the meaning of the line about “any person who purports to be required” to pay the tax? Does that mean that, simply by saying you owe any tax, whether or not you’re mistaken about the statutes, you owe it? These statutes are absurd, and they open to door to prosecutorial abuse.

If I could, I would simply do away with all sales taxes and use taxes, even if that meant increasing state income taxes in a revenue-neutral way. Such a far-reaching reform seems unlikely in the near future. However, the modest proposal I’ve offered, to exempt a person’s first $6,000 per year in out-of-state purchases from consumer use taxes, would go a long way toward solving the problem of unjustly criminalizing vast numbers of Coloradans.