Category Archives: Politics

Voting, Political Activism, and Taking a Stand

Earlier today I released an article titled, “Why I Will Vote for Any Democrat over Ted Cruz.” The upshot is that Cruz chummed around at an event and on stage with a man who openly calls for the death penalty for homosexuals, just not right now “because we need some time for homosexuals to repent.” Another speaker at that event distributed literature that calls for the death penalty for homosexuals.

Incidentally, the same man, Kevin Swanson has also said that the jihadist massacres in Paris were “a message from God” because the victims included “humanist devil-worshippers.” He has also said that “there might be a connection” between pro-gay policies in Colorado and wildfires and flooding, and that Colorado is arguably “more evil than Communist China, than North Korea” because of a newspaper photo in the state of two men kissing.

And, again, this is a man that Ted Cruz actively and chummily speaks with on stage and actively pursues as a political ally.

Predictably, I got some pushback on social media from Cruz’s supporters. Rather than try to respond to those remarks piecemeal via Social Media, I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss political activism and other matters in greater detail here.

Before turning to the matter of activism, I want to address a couple of minor issues. (Skip to the header about activism if you wish.)

First, I’m surprised by the level of anger some people have expressed over my article. The worst comment came via email; the fellow writing said that, given my remarks, he’d “truly worry about standing beside [me] in battle.” He continued, “My inclination would be to shoot you myself for fear of you turning against me and killing me and fighting with the enemy.” Thankfully, other remarks were markedly less ridiculous. Still, some were equally angry.

My response to such anger is this: If you’re more angry about me criticizing Ted Cruz than you are about Cruz palling around with a man whose stance on homosexuality is practically indistinguishable from that of Saudi Arabia, there is something seriously wrong with your priorities and with the way you think about politics.

Second, one or two people complained that I cited Right Wing Watch in drawing out the facts about Swanson. Here my reply is two-fold. My remarks about Swanson come from video of Swanson himself. It doesn’t matter who filmed Swanson or published the results; what matters is what Swanson undeniably said.

And I agree it is a pity that I had to turn to Right Wing Watch and like sites as a source on Swanson. The fact is that conservative journalists and videographers should have immediately published the relevant material about Swanson, should have immediately condemned Swanson’s remarks, should have immediately insisted that Ted Cruz apologize for appearing with Swanson and condemn Swanson’s remarks. Yet they did not.

The fact that I had to turn to Right Wing Watch and like sites to find the relevant details about Swanson’s remarks, because I could not find such details on conservative sites, speaks to the moral depravity widespread in the modern conservative movement. It is indeed shameful that many conservatives observe Right Wing Watch publish the materials and make the moral pronouncements about Swanson that conservatives themselves should publish and pronounce.

I want to hasten to add that some conservatives (including a number of my social media contacts) have spoken out against Swanson and against Cruz’s association with him. Colorado writer Thomas Krannawitter, who I think considers himself a conservative, wrote an impassioned Facebook post on the matter. He writes, in part:

[I]s this what it means to be a “Republican” today, committing one’s self to Jesus in one breath and calling for the government-sponsored execution of homosexuals in the next? If not, why not? I am not sure whether to laugh or cry over what has become of the Party of Lincoln. Either way, I for one will not hesitate to call out, condemn, and reject the proposals of Mr. Kevin Swanson. . . . [If any Republican candidate is] not willing to call this out as the irrational, immoral cultish claptrap it is, then they certainly do not deserve my vote or support.

And Michael L. Brown writes, “I want to stand with [Rachel Maddow] in renouncing this kind of rhetoric in the strongest possible terms, especially since this was a Christian-based rally.” (However, Brown inexplicably excuses Cruz’s attendance at the event where he shared a stage with Swanson.)

Some other lines of criticism I don’t find worth discussing here. But I do want to talk about criticisms pertaining to political activism.

Voting Is Not Political Activism

Apparently this seemingly obvious fact comes as news to some people, but your vote, by itself, does not matter at all in terms of shifting the political landscape. In those terms, you’d be far better off sitting at home and doing any other activist-related activity, rather than voting. This follows straight-forwardly from the fact that your vote is almost certainly never going to affect the outcome of any major election.

Yet, surprisingly (to me), some people seem to interpret my previous piece on Cruz as if the important issue is how I’m going to vote. How I’m going to vote, by itself, is of absolutely no consequence. If my purpose were merely to pronounce how I intend to vote, my piece would have been a pointless waste of time. But, as you might by now surmise, that was not my purpose. So what was?

A common complaint I saw on social media is that, however bad Cruz might be on various issues, he would not be able to make much headway with his worst ideas, and he would be better than any Democrat, who likely would be able to make substantial headway in a harmful direction on various issues. But this sort of criticism completely misses the point of my piece and completely misunderstands the nature of political activism.

If I were so stupid as to believe that one political party is consistently the Party of the Angels, while the other party is consistently the Party of the Devils (and, for the Swanson acolytes out there, I’m speaking metaphorically!), then I would consistently promise my unconditional support to the Party of the Angels. I would have no need to strategize politically or to try to influence the parties.

But, here in the real world, both major political parties threaten people’s rights in extreme ways and threaten to do so even more severely into the future. So, as a politically aware and involved person, I do need to strategize politically and to make some attempt to influence the direction of the parties.

To lay some additional context: It is pure fantasy to claim that the major parties are substantially different on most practical matters of domestic or even foreign policy. Today, both Republicans and Democrats advocate a massive welfare and regulatory state; usually they differ only on a few relatively minor details. Anyone who doubts this is welcome to (for example) ask any Republican politician, on the record, if he or she is in favor of phasing out Social Security or of repealing the national minimum wage. Although the parties are more noticeably different on matters of foreign policy, their positions are essentially variations on the theme of pragmatic “diplomacy” plus piecemeal military actions.

So let’s try to look at political strategy as grownups with our wits about us, rather than as cheerleaders for some political team. If you want to be a cheerleader, I suggest you go back to high school or join the Broncos cheer squad, because you just don’t have the mentality to be serious about politics.

What is my goal as an activist, insofar as I seek to influence electoral politics? This depends in part on where we are in the political process and what timeline I think is most relevant.

Where are we now? We are in the primaries! The candidates have not yet been selected. So my goal as a political activist (within the narrow electoral sphere) is to try to get the best candidates possible and to try to get the winning candidates to commit to the most reasonable policies possible (which, granted, is a pretty low bar these days).

Put bluntly, you are a complete idiot, strategically speaking, if you promise your unconditional support for a given candidate or party at this point.

If you effectively communicate, “I will support any Republican nominee over any Democratic nominee, no matter what,” you tell Republican candidates that they don’t need to give any consideration, at all, to what you think about things. Instead, what candidates are going to do is what they always do: Pander to the worst Republican theocrats, largely because the theocrats actually threaten to stay home if they don’t get their way.

In short, if you guarantee your unconditional support for the Republican party’s nominees, whoever they are and whatever dreadful things they do and say, you (and all your strategically foolish friends who do the same) virtually guarantee that the Republican Party will get more and more crazy over time. And, if you’re not insane (or a theocrat, but I repeat myself), that’s a bad outcome.

One main political strategy is necessary to help the Republican party become the party of individual rights rather than the party of theocratic fascism, and that is to loudly and proudly declare: “I will not vote for the theocrats or for any candidate who panders to them. Either I will stay home, or, because I really want to emphasize the point, I will go to the voting booth, hold my nose, and vote for the Democrat.”

I can put up with a lot of nonsense from candidates that I ultimately end up voting for. But some things we simply have to declare to be unacceptable, and we have to mean it—for example a candidate cannot chum it up with a man who proclaims it might someday be a good idea to kill all the gays.

If you (as a Republican supporter) don’t have the good sense and moral fortitude to openly and loudly declare that you will not vote for Ted Cruz unless he apologizes for appearing with Swanson and condemns Swanson’s remarks, then you are part of the problem, you are part of the ongoing intellectual and moral corruption of the Republican Party, you are part of what threatens American liberty.

So, no, the point of my previous essay on Cruz was not merely to pronounce how I might vote—that would be a stupid and vain exercise. Instead, my purpose was to try to shake other Republican voters out of their cheerleading fantasies and actually do something to influence the direction of the Republican Party, and to communicate to Republican leaders that, well, I’m sick and tired of their theocratic panderings, and I’m not going to take it, anymore.


Why I Will Vote for Any Democrat over Ted Cruz

I support many of Ted Cruz’s positions, including his call for freedom of association for religious business owners. In 2013, I praised Cruz for taking a stand against ObamaCare (and for quoting Atlas Shrugged in the process). Last year, I praised Cruz again for championing freedom of speech in the political realm.

Earlier this year, when my then-editor Craig Biddle described Cruz as potentially “the best [candidate] America will see in this election cycle,” his case struck me as optimistic but not wildly implausible. “Time will tell,” Biddle added.

What time has told me is that not only can I not vote for Ted Cruz for president, but that I must vote for any Democrat against him. Why?

In early November, Cruz, along with Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal, spoke at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa. At that event, host Kevin Swanson openly called for the death penalty for homosexuals—albeit only after they’ve had a chance to “repent.” Another speaker at the conference distributed literature advocating the death penalty for homosexuals.

While appearing on stage with Swanson, Cruz said that a nonreligious person “isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.” But who isn’t fit to be president is anyone who shares the stage, purposely and in camaraderie, with a man who openly calls for the (future) mass murder of homosexuals.

Huckabee tried the dodge that he didn’t have “any knowledge” of Swanson’s views before hand—as though he had never heard of Google. Right Wing Watch alone has posted dozens of articles about Swanson.

Cruz can’t even claim Huckabee’s excuse. Before Cruz attended the event, CNN’s Jake Tapper warned Cruz on television that Swanson (as Tapper paraphrases) thinks “the faithful [should] put gays to death because what they do is an abomination.”

It is no stretch to liken Swanson to the Taliban. Swanson doesn’t want to see random acts of terror against the general citizenry; he “merely” wants to eventually see state-sanctioned terror against homosexuals (among others), along the lines of the policies of murderous theocracies such as Iran and Saudia Arabia.

By appearing on stage in friendship with Swanson, Cruz has completely destroyed any credibility he may have had as a leader against violent religious movements.

Jindal has already dropped out, and I don’t expect much from Huckabee. But Cruz is now showing up in third place in Iowa polls, and I expect that the campaigns of one or both of the current leaders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, will eventually implode. So Cruz, it seems now, is seriously positioned to potentially be the GOP nominee for president—which adds considerable urgency for sensible people to speak out against him.

Of course, if Cruz explicitly condemns Swanson and his horrific views regarding homosexuals, then I will consider changing my position. But Cruz has already let most of a month go by without doing that, so far as I have seen.

The thought of voting for Hillary Clinton, never mind Bernie Sanders, sickens me. But many GOP primary voters seem determined to give me no other choice. (At this point, I think the only Republicans with traction I might be able to vote for are Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina.)

Whenever Swanson and his ilk share the Republican stage, I will vote Democrat, every time. How can a sane person do otherwise?


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.


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.

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.

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.

Quick Reflections on the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Decision

Today the Supreme Court issued a momentous decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. Here I collect my brief reflections on the matter in the form of embedded Tweets.

Why Not Send All Colorado Bills to a Floor Vote?

Yesterday I waded into the middle of the conflict between Rocky Mountain Gun Owners RMGO and the Independence Institute regarding strategy over gun magazine restrictions. (This morning Mandy Connell discussed my article on KHOW, and Dudley Brown called in to explain his position.) Related, yesterday RMGO* also tried a bizarre procedural move to force a floor vote of the bill to repeal the magazine restrictions.

The leftist ColoradoPols has a write-up about this. According to a Democratic media release it quotes, “Rep. Everett moved to amend the journal to overturn the work of the committee and show that SB15-175 passed.” That is certainly an, uh, interesting tactic. Obviously if a Democrat tried that with Republican leadership, Republicans would explode in anger. (I’ve emailed Everett about this and will update this article if he replies.)*

But, RMGO* antics aside, the episode gave me an idea: Why not send all bills to a floor-wide vote? The legislature would still have committees, and the committees would still hear testimony. But, rather than vote a bill up or down, a committee would offer a recommendation on a bill and send it on to the entire body for a vote.

The idea behind the committee vote, presumably, is that a small group of legislators can specialize in a certain area and weed out the unworthy bills. But, in practice, legislative leadership routinely use committees to kill bills they don’t like. Certain committees are informally known as “kill committees”; they are where leadership sends bills so that their reliable colleagues in safe seats can vote them down. Yes, committees hear testimony, but in many or most cases this testimony is entirely irrelevant to the outcome of the bill: Often legislators know how they will vote, and how each of the other committee members will vote, before the hearing even starts.

One purpose of “kill committees” is to shield other members of the leadership’s party from having to take uncomfortable positions on controversial topics. This is good for the party in power, but it is bad for constituents, and it is bad for the democratic process. (I’m not a democrat, but I do see value in citizen oversight of government.)

Of course, if every bill were brought to a floor vote, each legislator would have to vote on many more bills than is currently the case. I regard that as a benefit of the plan, not a bug. It might discourage legislators from introducing so damn many bills.

If this plan were implemented, it might also make sense to change how floor votes are conducted. Here is one possibility: Once a bill made it through committee, legislators could register their vote for a bill whenever they wanted. They could vote yes, no, or abstain. Once every legislator cast a vote, the bill would be declared passed or failed. If, by the end of the session, a legislator had not cast a vote, his vote would be “abstain” by default.

At this point, my proposal is preliminary. I’d want to learn some additional facts before committing to it, including these: Is this done in any other state government? [April 20 Update: Paul Jacob tells me that New Hampshire does this. Rob Natelson tells me North Dakota does, too.] Is there any consequence to the system I’m not foreseeing? Would this require a citizens’ initiative to implement? Offhand, though, putting every bill to a floor vote seems like a great idea.

April 20 Update: This plan is compatible with floor debate for each vote. Then voting would start at the end of the floor debate. Also, I’m not sure how the legislature works now on this issue, but it seems to me that a bill should pass only if a majority plus one vote to pass it, counting all the “abstain” votes. Another variant: Rather than send all bills to the floor, committees could rule, unless a third (plus one) of a body’s members called for a floor vote, in which case a bill would go to the floor even if the committee voted no.

* April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett emailed me and stated that, contrary to the claims of ColoradoPols, “RMGO wasn’t involved” in the floor action. (RMGO PAC endorsed Everett last year.) He further states “it was a legit way to get the mag ban to the floor.” April 18 Update: RMGO’s Dudley Brown, however, explicitly claims participation in the legislative move.

Observations about the Colorado Gun Magazine Spat

Dudley Brown

Dudley Brown

If you’re a gun-rights activist, is it better to have a law that restricts gun magazines to fifteen rounds or to thirty rounds? The answer might seem obvious: Laws that violate rights less are less-bad than laws that violate rights more. So of course Rocky Mountain Gun Owners opposed a recent attempt to ease Colorado’s magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds—waging a nasty smear campaign along the way.

In 2013, House Bill 1224 banned “the transfer of gun magazines holding more than 15 rounds,” as I reviewed that year.

This year, various Colorado Republican legislators attempted to repeal the magazine restrictions. An April 15 email from the National Rifle Association summarizes: “SB [Senate Bill] 175, introduced by state Senators Chris Holbert (R-30) and John Cooke (R-13), would have repealed [the] anti-gun piece of legislation passed into law during the 2013 legislative session that arbitrarily limits the number of rounds of ammunition you can use to protect yourself and your family to 15.” (People can keep the larger magazines they already own but not legally acquire new ones in the state.) A house committee killed that bill on April 15.

No serious person actually thought the Democrat-controlled state house would repeal the magazine restrictions; the purpose of the legislation was to keep up awareness of the issue.

However, there was an outside chance that Democrats might support a measure to ease the magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds; apparently Democrat Joe Salazar indicated he would. [April 20 Update: Salazar suggested this in a video with Revealing Politics.] The idea was for some legislator to run a late bill on the matter. Jon Caldara and Dave Kopel, president and research director (respectively) for the Independence Institute (II), supported that proposal. Dudley Brown and his Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) opposed it. The proposal seems to be dead at this point.

I don’t think there was much chance of such a measure passing. (I contacted Salazar via email and voice mail to ask him about the proposal, but I haven’t heard back from him.) However, it was perfectly reasonable for gun-rights activists to pursue such a proposal. But RMGO doesn’t do reasonable. It does smear.

On April 13, RMGO published a Facebook post calling the thirty-round proposal the “Kopel Kompromise.” The post continued, “Does Michael Bloomberg have a sleeper cell in Colorado? All of a sudden David Kopel is fighting as hard as he can to save the Magazine Ban by gutting SB15-175, the repeal bill. Maybe its because he’s a ‘lifelong registered Democrat’ and a ‘Ralph Nader’ voter.”

Kopel is one of the most important Second Amendment scholars in the world and an outspoken critic of Bloomberg’s gun-restriction proposals. RMGO’s insinuation that he’s somehow secretly and intentionally working to promote Bloomberg’s agenda is a slanderous lie.

It is also flatly untrue that Kopel wanted to “gut” bill 175; I’ll get to the pertinent details momentarily.

RMGO claims on Facebook (in a comment) that the II “started it”—because apparently you’re never too old for kindergarten. RMGO claims that posting the message about Kopel is “[o]nly returning the favor. Caldara (and by extension, Kopel) started it by claiming we were working with Bloomberg.” I doubt very seriously that Caldara publicly claimed that RMGO is “working with Bloomberg.” (It would be wrong and foolish to say such a thing.) Caldara has claimed, and rightly so, that RMGO is in effect furthering Bloomberg’s agenda by undercutting the effort to ease the restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds. Regardless of what Caldara said about RMGO, RMGO was quite wrong to smear Kopel.

RMGO also stated in a Facebook post targeting Caldara: “Anti-gun State Rep. Joe Salazar is floating a so-called ‘compromise’ proposal that’ll virtually guarantee Bloomberg’s Magazine Ban will be PERMANENT and unrepealable. Worse, establishment lobbyists like Jon Caldara are backing it by attacking RMGO members and supporters. Please . . . urge lawmakers to oppose the Salazar-Caldara ‘Permanent Magazine Ban Amendment.’ Insist they pass SB15-175 without amendment and repeal the Mag Ban in its entirety.”

RMGO’s claims about the politics of the proposals are implausible, as I’ll explain later. (Notice that RMGO neglected to point out the nature of the “compromise” in question.) For now consider merely what the legislative proposal was.

I’ve communicated with Kopel and Caldara by email, and with Holbert by phone, and they agree that amending 175 was never on the table; the plan was for a late bill. Caldara states, “Dudley was trying to confuse the issue saying that we wanted to change SB-175, which couldn’t be changed that way even if we want to. We want the Senate Republicans to pass a change to the current mag ban from 15 to 30 in a brand new late bill. Dudley won’t allow his followers to vote for that. He and Bloomberg don’t want Coloradans to have 30 rounds mags.”

As Holbert told me by phone (and as he’s also said on Facebook), there never was a late bill to ease the magazine restrictions. He said, “It’s frustrating for me that people have been drawing lines and taking sides on something that wasn’t real.” He granted that a late bill was a theoretical possibility; however, he said he’s heard from leadership that they don’t want late bills. (It’s unclear whether Salazar would have seriously supported any magazine bill.) Interestingly, senate president Bill Cadman just introduced a late bill regarding fetal homicide, so evidently late bills are not totally off the table.

I asked Holbert if he would vote for easing the restrictions to 30 rounds, and he said no. It’s hard to see why anyone would run the bill, knowing that RMGO’s own favored legislators would torpedo it. So it seems to me that Holbert wants it both ways: He wants to say that voting on the proposal was never a real possibility, but he actively discouraged it from becoming a real possibility by declaring he’d oppose it.

Holbert echoed RMGO’s position, that a “compromise” measure would make it “all but impossible to repeal [the ban] if the numbers moved to thirty.”

That claim, that easing the restrictions now would make repealing them later impossible, is frankly silly. The only way the magazine restrictions will be repealed is if the Republicans recapture both sides of the legislature and probably the governor’s mansion as well. It’s not enough to pull some Democrats over from a Democrat-controlled body, because leadership can kill any bill it wants. If Republicans were to regain control of state government across the board—by the way, something that’s extremely unlikely into the foreseeable future—then it would be just as easy for Republicans to repeal a thirty-round law as a fifteen-round law. Indeed, in some ways it would be easier to repeal a thirty-round law, because the marginal change from that to an outright repeal would be less dramatic.

So, if your goal is to ultimately repeal the magazine ban, passing a marginal reform now would be the best move toward that goal. (If, on the other hand, your goal is to keep your members angry and writing checks, RMGO’s strategy may make more sense.)

[April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett send me an email in which he states that, if easing the magazine restrictions to thirty rounds “was doable, then we would never get a full magazine ban repeal because there would be no political will to do so even on the Republican side. Trust me, I serve with these people.” I don’t buy it.]

The underlying substantive issue is whether any sort of political compromise or piecemeal reform is appropriate. The view expressed by Holbert and RMGO, that easing a rights-violating law is wrong because it makes repealing the law harder, is frankly insane, and no rational person would attempt to treat the principle as a universal. Not even Dudley Brown would attempt to do so.

Take the example of background-registration checks. In 2000 I worked with Brown to oppose Amendment 22, the measure (which passed) to extend registration checks to private sales at gun shows. In 2013, Colorado government passed House Bill 1229 to expand registration checks to almost all gun sales. Would Brown argue that it would be wrong to repeal Bill 1229 or Amendment 22, on the grounds that doing so would not totally repeal background-registration checks? Obviously not. Brown would do exactly what he blasts Kopel for trying to do: seek piecemeal reform.

Or consider the example of taxation. I think taxation is wrong and ultimately should be replaced by voluntary financing of government. But obviously I’m not going to torpedo any effort to marginally reduce tax rates and government spending, on the pretext that doing so would make taxes harder to repeal; that would be insane.

By Brown’s “logic,” voting for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was wrong because it still allowed increases in government spending.

By Brown’s “logic,” any effort to ease regulations on businesses should be opposed, so long as any regulations remain.

By Brown’s “logic,” Lincoln should be condemned for his Emancipation Proclamation on the grounds that it did not totally end slavery.

Brown’s position regarding magazine restrictions is essentially that he wants the law to be as rights-violating and damaging as possible, so that people are motivated to repeal it. By that “logic,” if the restrictions were set at five rounds, he’d oppose easing them to fifteen. If magazines were totally banned, he’d oppose legalizing any gun magazines if they were restricted in any way.

Usually I’m the first to quote Ayn Rand’s remarks about compromise, and I agree with them. But it is no compromise of principles to accept an incremental reform on the path to consistently good policy. To hold otherwise is to deny any possibility for incremental improvements.

I should mention that I know both Brown and Kopel personally; I’m probably the only person in the world to have worked (on contract and at different times) for both RMGO and the II. I first met Brown in 1998. I’ve always admired Brown’s talents as a political operative, and on a personal level I’ve generally found him to be an amiable guy. But in this case he’s sacrificed gun rights for the sake of smearing Kopel, whom he has long disliked. It would be pleasant if Brown would refrain from being a vindictive and hypocritical jerk. I won’t hold my breath.

Penn Jillette Reminds Denver Crowd to Defend Liberty for “Crazies” Too

penn-jilletteAs you gain political power, Penn Jillette told the conservatives and free market advocates at the Independence Institute’s 30th Anniversary Founders’ Night banquet, be sure to remember the “nuts” and “crazies” and defend their liberty, too. After all, he said, we can’t have a free society unless people have the “freedom to be stupid.”

The Institute’s president Jon Caldara is an edgy guy who often pushes the boundaries of humor. But I could tell he was a little nervous that  Jillette, an outspoken atheist known for his Bullshit! Showtime series, might prove too controversial for his more conservative supporters. His hand-wringing was unnecessary. Jillette delivered an earnest and heartfelt speech (while pacing the stage without notes) that appealed to most everyone in the room. I had seen Penn & Teller’s magic show in Las Vegas, so I knew Jillette to be a talented entertainer, but I was surprised by how polished and engaging a public speaker he is.

Jillette gave as good a presentation for the standard libertarian argument that “government is force” as I’ve ever seen. He talked about the many hours he’d spent at his local library as a child and about his love for NPR. Yet, he said, he could not justify pointing the guns of government at people to force them to help finance such projects. He once turned down a government grant for a project because “our show was too damn good” for that. “Guns don’t belong in art,” he said.

Jillette also talked about the trap of cynicism, and how he had once fallen into that trap by assuming that many people would watch Bullshit! because they hated it. Instead, although many people were critical of the show, usually they expressed their criticism politely and constructively. Telling a person “you’re wrong” directly grants them a certain respect, he said; it’s recognizing “you’re an American” and seeing robust debate as part of what we’re about as a nation.

Incidentally, Jillette looked fantastic; he has recently lost over a hundred  pounds by changing his diet.

The Institute also presented its annual David S. D’Evelyn Award to George Caulkins, a veteran Marine helicopter pilot active with the Alliance for Choice in Education.

I also received the Vern Bickel Award for Grassroots Leadership. (I had only 20 seconds on stage, so I thanked the Institute and jokingly presented Caldara with a Hillary Clinton Nutcracker.) Mike Rosen graciously introduced me. I very much appreciate this recognition by the Institute and all the well-wishes expressed by my friends and associates.


How Various Media Botched an Abortion Story and Defamed GOP Rep. Barbieri

No one can reasonably question my pro-choice credentials—I’ve been a vocal opponent of the so-called “personhood” measures in Colorado; I’ve coauthored a paper defending a woman’s right to seek an abortion; and I’ve coauthored the article, “The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties.” So, as a matter of policy, on this issue I stand opposed to Idaho’s Republican state representative Vito Barbieri, who is anti-abortion and who advocates legal restrictions of abortion.

But just because Barbieri is wrong on the issues, doesn’t mean he deserves to be lied about and defamed—yet what various media outlets have done precisely is lie about Barbieri, take his remarks grossly out of context, and defame him.

I advocate legal abortion, but I do not advocate only that; among many other things, I also advocate honesty in media and basic human decency.  The media outlets in question have failed both those tests. Because initially I was suckered by their dishonest reports, and because I published a Tweet mocking Barbieri (which I subsequently corrected), I now feel some responsibility to help set the record straight.

The context, according to an Associated Press article by Kimberlee Kruesi, was that the Idaho legislature was hearing “testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.” A doctor who testified against the bill, Julie Madsen, drew a comparison to a camera swallowed for a colonoscopy, which can be useful in telemedicine. To this, Barbieri sensibly inquired whether a camera might also be useful for a chemically-induced abortion—the topic at hand—and Madsen admitted it cannot be useful for that, because, she said, “swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.” In other words, Madsen is the one who brought up swallowed cameras, and Barbieri is the one who pointed out that swallowed cameras are useless when it comes to investigating a pregnancy. As Kuesi reports, “Barbieri later said that the question was rhetorical and intended to make a point.” By any reasonable interpretation of the events, that is obviously what happened.

Yet numerous media outlets completely reversed the facts to make it seem as though Barbieri thought a swallowed camera might be useful for pregnancy, and that Madsen was “educating” him that the digestive tract is not connected to the vagina. But that was precisely the fact of which Barbieri was reminding Madsen, to point out that that portion of her testimony was, in his view, off-topic.

To get the flavor of the defamatory remarks that various “journalists” made about Barbieri, see articles published by the Washington Post, MSNBCSlate, Huffington Post, People, and Jezebel.

As soon as I read Barbieri’s remarks in context, it was pretty clear that various media reports about those remarks were flatly wrong. So I did something that is apparently unusual in the world of journalism today: I actually contacted Barbieri to get his side of the story. His comments square perfectly with the account I’ve given; here is what he emailed me, in full:

Thank you for contacting me in regard to my comments in the House State Affairs committee. Unfortunately, this is an example of the media taking an issue and warping it to fulfill their own agenda.

Please review the remarks made in context.

While discussing the efficacy of long-distance ‘telemedicine’, the doctor testifying was making an invalid comparison between two vastly different medical procedures, citing a colonoscopy was many times more dangerous than a chemical abortion. I was highlighting the absurdity of this comparison by taking her example of a patient swallowing a camera capsule to ascertain the condition of that patient’s digestive tract “from thousands of miles away” (her words) and, by asking my question, emphasizing that such technology could not be used in the case of a pregnant woman.

With respect to the issue at hand: It is a paramount responsibility of the Legislature to act for the benefit of the health and safety of all its citizens. To that end, and to protect the expectant mother, this bill proposed a physician must first physically examine her prior to dispensing these powerful chemicals. The first chemical will deprive the baby of nutrients which of course starves her/him to death and then, the second chemical, induces hemorrhaging thereby expelling the fetus. The expectant mother is home, alone, having no idea whether the amount of bleeding she is experiencing is normal for this procedure or is the product of a serious complication. This bill merely requires a doctor to physically examine the woman and should be at hand and available in the latter case.

Here is a transcript of the full exchange (with thanks to Betsy Russell, from the Spokesman Review, you can link to a copy of her blog “Eye on Boise” here):

Barbieri: “You mentioned the risk of colonoscopy , can that be done by drugs?”

Dr. Julie Madsen: “It cannot be done by drugs. It can, however, be done remotely where you swallow a pill and this pill has a little camera, and it makes its way through your intestines and those images are uploaded to a doctor who’s often thousands of miles away, who then interprets that.”

Barbieri: “Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”

Madsen: “It cannot be done in pregnancy, simply because when you swallow a pill, it would not end up in the vagina.” (Hoots of laughter from the audience)

Barbieri: “Fascinating. That certainly makes sense, doctor.”

Again, thanks for sharing your perspective on this very important issue and know I will continue to be steadfast in protecting woman’s health as well as the unborn.

Rep. Vito Barbieri
District 2

Now, as a matter of policy, I think Barbieri is clearly wrong. Doctors are more than competent to determine whether telemedicine is safe and appropriate regarding chemically-induced abortions. (Further, doctors’ insurance providers will take steps to ensure they are competent; otherwise, the doctors would get sued.) Further, I think Barbieri’s concerns about bleeding are a mere rationalization to mask his deeper, anti-abortion agenda. On that point, Madsen’s comments are on-topic, for they show that Barbieri (apparently) wants to restrict telemedicine only with respect to abortion, not with respect to other medical conditions.

Barbieri’s policy position is, in my view, unjustifiable—which means that it can be defeated based on facts and logic. Defaming Barbieri, as various media outlets have done, only distracts attention away from the important issues at hand and makes Barbieri’s supporters quite legitimately feel persecuted by a dishonest media.

I will hold out hope that the journalists who defamed Barbieri are in fact journalists, and that they have enough journalistic integrity to publish corrections and apologize to Barbieri.

Vaccinations and the Misreporting of the “Parent’s Bill of Rights”

If there’s one thing I hate more than faulty reporting of a political issue, it’s when the faulty reporting is mine. Earlier today on Twitter I wrongly accused Progress Now Colorado of misstating the text of a bill, Colorado Senate Bill 15-077 (the “Parent’s Bill of Rights”). I apologized for that, and I here apologize again. The basic issue is whether and in what respect the bill touches on parental choice with respect to vaccinations.

Unfortunately, some of the other reporting of the bill significantly mischaracterizes it—including that by Progress Now Colorado. Here I’d like to clarify what the bill actually says, correct my own factual error, and comment on other reporting about the bill.

Some preliminary remarks: I have no position on the bill in question, because I have not researched it adequately to reach a position on it. Offhand, it seems like an overly ambitious, overly broad bill. (It will almost certainly fail, so I see little need to look more closely into it at this time.)

As a matter of political strategy, the bill represents a massive failure for the Colorado GOP. The state senate is definitely in play next year, and Democrats will almost certainly use this bill to scare parents about outbreaks of horrific diseases. My state senator, Laura Woods, a cosponsor of the bill, likely will suffer hit pieces on the matter—we live in an extremely competitive district that until recently was held by Democrats. (In an email about the bill, Progress Now Colorado explicitly named Woods and only her, even though she is not the bill’s primary sponsor.) The bill, introduced January 14 (see the legislature’s web page), winds through the legislature just when national debate rages about vaccinations. So why stir that pot for a bill that doesn’t even have a chance to pass, especially using the names of at-risk legislators? Strategically, the bill is idiotic.

Cleverly taking advantage of the media storm surrounding vaccinations, Progress Now Colorado described SB-77 this way in an email this morning:

One of the worst attacks we’re seeing right now is on public health and education. News reports this week show that Colorado has the lowest rate of childhood vaccinations in America. Right-wing politicians like Rand Paul have come under fire for suggesting that vaccines might be responsible for mental health problems in children, even though that theory has been totally discredited by scientific research.

Right on cue, Colorado conservatives in the Senate have introduced a bill reaffirming the “right” of parents to not have their children vaccinated. With outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough making nationwide headlines, is there a worse message we could send to Colorado parents?

The email’s description is technically accurate but incomplete. The nine-page bill includes a single line about immunization. Here’s what the relevant section of the bill states:

The board of education of a school district, in consultation with parents, teachers, and administrators, shall develop and adopt a policy to promote the involvement of parents of children enrolled in the schools within the school district. The policy must include . . . [p]rocedures by which a parent can learn about the parental rights and responsibilities under the laws of the this state, including the right to . . . [b]e exempt from any immunization laws of this state.

In other words, the bill doesn’t do anything to alter current immunization laws; it merely directs school boards to help parents better “learn” about existing statutes. (Why parents might need the help of school boards to learn about statutes they can easily look up for themselves is beyond me.)

Again, the bit about immunization takes up a single line of a nine-page bill—yet not only Progress Now Colorado but various news outlets made it seem as though vaccinations was the primary issue of the bill.

An article by CBS4 carries the title, “Bill Would Support Parents Opting Out Of Child Vaccinations.” Although the article is technically accurate, it is misleading in that it doesn’t even mention any aspect of the bill besides vaccinations until the fourth paragraph.

The headline of a 9News article states, “‘Parents Bill of Rights’ proposal underlines vaccines, sex education opt-outs.” Again, the article (by Eli Stokols) is technically correct, yet it wrongly implies that the bill is predominantly about vaccinations and sex education. (The bill mentions sex several times, but that too is only a minor aspect of the bill.)

Stokols’s article also wrongly claims the bill “authoriz[es] Colorado parents to make all medical decisions for their children until they’re 18.”  Actually, the bill expressly allows government to intervene when there is a “compelling governmental interest” in doing so, if that interest “is of the highest order, is narrowly tailored, and cannot be accomplished in a less restrictive manner.” The bill also offers exceptions “as otherwise provided by law.”

Notably, the bill mentions neither vaccinations nor sex in its summary; instead, the summary states, “The bill establishes a parent’s bill of rights that sets forth specific parental rights related to education, health care, and mental health care of minor children.”

Given that SB-77 does not alter existing vaccination laws, but only creates new guidelines for educating parents about those laws, what do existing state laws say about vaccinations? Revised Statute 25-4-903, pertaining to “school entry,” states, “It is the responsibility of the parent or legal guardian to have his or her child immunized.” It offers exemptions for health reasons, on the basis of “a religious belief whose teachings are opposed to immunizations,” and on the basis of “a personal belief that is opposed to immunizations.” I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the statutes apply to homeschoolers and to students in private schools as well as to students in government schools. I’m also guessing that, because of the compulsory attendance laws, all parents of school-age children legally must comply with these statutes, ether getting the immunizations or filing for an exemption. Those points merit further research.

Obviously, neither Progress Now Colorado nor any Colorado Democrat is likely to come out publicly in favor of repealing the existing exemptions. So they support, at least tacitly, the exact same vaccination policy that the Republicans they’re demonizing support.

But, for some reason, neither reporters nor political hacktivists see the percentage in running the headline, “Democrats Support the Exact Same Vaccination Laws that Republicans Support, Quibble Over Providing Information”—even though that is the essential truth here.

So where did I go wrong in my initial reporting? In my initial hasty reading of the bill, I looked for the term “vaccination” and missed the related term “immunization.” That was simply an oversight. I thought Progress Now Colorado was reading an implication into the bill that it didn’t explicitly cover. I hastily Tweeted my erroneous conclusion.

Thankfully, Eli Sokols corrected me, pointing me to the relevant line in question, at which point I thanked him and apologized to Progress Now Colorado and to Alan Franklin (a supporter of that group) for my error. I again apologize to those parties, and I again express my appreciation to Stokols for taking the time to point out my error. This serves at a good reminder not to come out swinging without firmly nailing down the relevant facts.

I take solace in the fact that, with this report, I feel I’ve done the matter justice.

Update: Alan Franklin reports that “anti-vaxxers”—people opposed to vaccinations—testified today in favor of the bill. This underlines my point that, strategically, the bill is a disaster for Republicans. I bet the Democrats on the committee can barely contain their glee at witnessing the farce; it’s as though Republicans are writing the attack ads against themselves. I do find it interesting that both the opponents of vaccinations and Democratic operatives are trying to paint the bill as something that it is not: a measure altering vaccination exemptions. At any rate, in case my position was not clear by implication: Vaccines are a wonderful, life-saving medical advance, and parents generally should get their children vaccinated against the relevant diseases.

Second Update: I made yet another error in the original version of this report, and I rewrote it just before 6 pm local time to correct the mistake. (This time Alan Franklin corrected me, which I again appreciate.) Originally I saw the religious exemption in state statutes but missed the exemption for “personal belief.” Originally, I remarked that having only a religious exemption is wrong; however, because there’s not only a religious exemption, that remark was misplaced. Again, I do not have a well-developed policy position on such issues.

Third Update: In an article time-stamped 5:31 pm (but that I read some hours later), ABC7 reports that SB-77 passed out of committee on a party-line vote. The article contains this remarkable passage:

The measure also mentions the controversial topic of immunizations, underscoring current Colorado law that allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids for medical, religious or personal beliefs by signing a waiver. 7NEWS asked if the bill would get rid of the waiver process.

“Yes, I mean, I would assume so,” [bill sponsor Tim] Neville said.

But I see no language in the bill that would remove the waiver process for vaccination exemption; the language quoted above certainly doesn’t do that. So I must conclude either that Neville had no idea what the reporter (Lindsay Watts) was asking, or he doesn’t fully understand his own bill. (That would not come as much of a surprise; legislators have a staff to write the language of bills.)

The article also summarizes: “Opponents argued at Thursday’s Senate Education Committee hearing that the measure would prevent children being physically or sexually abused from getting help, especially if a parent was the abuser.” Although I think the fear is exaggerated, I am concerned about language in the bill such as the following: “Except as otherwise provided by law, no [party] . . . may . . . perform a physical examination upon a minor child . . . without first obtaining written consent from the minor child’s parent.” What does “as otherwise provided by law” cover, exactly? Obviously, it would be a horrible outcome if, even in some cases, abusive parents could use the law to shield themselves from scrutiny. I am, to say the least, extremely skeptical that the bill is well written and narrowly tailored to address real problems.

How Colorado’s Lax Voter Security Can Lead a Criminal Right to Your Doorstep

bigstock-computer-criminalIf someone is stalking you or seeking to do you harm, the state of Colorado practically hands the criminal your personal home address, if you are registered to vote.

A couple weeks ago my wife showed me how, with only a name, zip code, and date of birth, you can access your own—or anyone else’s—voter registration information, including home address. Obviously, these bits of information usually are trivially easy for anyone to pick up via quick internet searches. What’s more, Richard Coolidge from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office tells me that someone from New Hampshire requested the entire Colorado voting list and published it online (I have not otherwise verified this claim).

Now that a publication for which I write is preparing to republish the Charlie Hebdo covers, it occurred to me that I don’t want every jihadist in the world to have easy access to a Google map to my front doorstep. Several years ago, when I was writing on another matter, I received a very nasty death threat (perhaps better characterized as a death wish), to the effect that the person hoped for my flesh to be lashed from my bones. I set up a mail box (at a UPS store) intentionally to keep my home address hidden; apparently, that was for naught.

There are provisions in Colorado statutes for anyone who has “reason to believe” that he, or “a member of [his] immediate household, will be exposed to criminal harassment, or otherwise be in danger of bodily harm.” You can go to your local DMV, request a “voter confidentiality” form, and pay a $5 fee to process it. Coolidge tells me that, if you have a restraining order against someone or other type of “active case,” you can join an “address confidentiality program.”

I’m glad those safeguards exist. However, I do not believe they are adequate. First, hardly anyone knows about the existing security risk or the existing remedies for it. Second, by the time someone is threatened or at risk, it’s probably too late—his personal home address is already published online.

Right now, the default is for voters’ home addresses to be openly published. I think that’s wrong. I’m as big a believer as anyone of open government records; however, there is a huge difference between the records of a state agency and one’s personal, private information—the release of which could create a life-threatening security risk.

I’m not entirely sure what the legislature should do to fix the problem; Coolidge says “Secretary [of State Wayne] Williams will be working with the legislature to raise this important issue and identify more options for voters.” Offhand, one idea is to list a voter’s precinct, not his home address. Another is to require those who request voters’ personal information to provide their own information to the government and agree to restrict their use of the information.

I understand the need to protect against voter fraud. But I also understand the need not to expose at-risk individuals to unnecessary danger.

I shouldn’t have to endanger my life to exercise my right to vote, and neither should anyone else who may be the target of criminal stalking or plots. I feel like that’s precisely what I’ve done.  I hope the legislature fixes this problem before someone is maimed or murdered with the help of these records.