Category Archives: Politics

Ted Cruz Touts Support of Anti-Gay Bigot Phil Robertson

“Bad company corrupts good character,” the Greeks observed (and the apostle Paul quoted). It also corrupts a political campaign. And Ted Cruz, in his zeal to win the support of evangelical voters, has kept terrible company.

First Cruz actively participated in an event at which the lead pastor openly discussed possible future government executions of homosexuals (among others), after they’ve had time to “repent.” At the same event, another pastor distributed literature advocating the death penalty for homosexuals. Then Cruz touted the endorsement of a man whose book sanctions government execution of abortion providers. (See my previous article, “Ted Cruz’s Dangerous Pandering to Theocrats.”)

By comparison, Phil Robertson is a lightweight bigot and theocrat. Still, it is disturbing that Cruz openly courts Robertson’s support and puts Robertson on stage at his political rallies to endorse him.

Robertson gained infamy in 2013 with his bigoted remarks about homosexuals in an interview with GQ. In describing what he regards as sinful, Robertson said:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

So, according to Robertson, homosexuals should be lumped in with people who have sex with animals, people who cheat on their spouses, drunks, swindlers, and the like.

He helpfully added,

We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?

So homosexuals are also morally akin to people who commit mass murder, according to Robertson.

Remember, that was in 2013. A sober, responsible candidate for the highest political office in the land might think to himself, “Robertson has proven himself to be a bigot and a loose canon. I don’t think I want to actively associate with him for purposes of my political campaign.”

But Ted Cruz is not a sober, responsible candidate, and apparently he places no boundaries on the company he keeps—if he thinks it will get him votes.

Rather than keep a respectful distance from Robertson, on January 13 Cruz bragged that he had picked up his endorsement. Cruz even released a video of Robertson endorsing him, complete with the two duck hunting together. (Robertson is known for his role on the “reality” television show, Duck Dynasty.) Cruz said, “I am thrilled to have Phil’s support for our campaign. The Robertson’s [sic] are a strong family of great Christian faith and conservative values.”

Robertson’s “great Christian faith” was on full display on January 31, when he spoke at a Cruz rally, backdropped by a Ted Cruz campaign sign. Robertson said:

When a fellow like me looks at the landscape and sees the depravity, the perversion—redefining marriage and telling us that marriage is not between a man and a woman? Come on Iowa! It is nonsense. It is evil. It’s wicked. It’s sinful. They want us to swallow it, you say. We have to run this bunch out of Washington, D.C. We have to rid the earth of them. Get them out of there.

Now, it’s one thing to oppose gay marriage in law or to oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. But it’s another thing to declare that gay marriage is “depravity,” “perversion,” “evil,” and “wicked”; to declare that Christians should “rid the earth” of those who endorse gay marriage.

Given Robertson’s previous comments, his vile remarks at Cruz’s rally come as no surprise. Cruz knew the sorts of things that Robertson likely would say, and Cruz invited him to say them—because Cruz thought that Robertson saying them would attract a certain type of voter to Cruz’s side.

Of course, I recognize that Cruz himself would never say the sort of things that Robertson says about homosexuals. By leaving it to others to rile up the worst elements of his evangelical base, Cruz apparently hopes to keep his hands clean for the general election.

I also recognize that Cruz has come out strongly against Islamist regimes that execute homosexuals, calling that murder. (It’s not like it’s a hard sell among evangelicals to say that Islamic theocracies are bad.)

Cruz has a point about the the problem of drawing specious moral equivalencies, contrasting Christian bakers with murderous Islamist regimes. To extend his point, an Islamist theocrat who murders homosexuals certainly is orders of magnitude worse than a Christian theocrat who projects the possibility of a Christian government murdering homosexuals, who in turn is worse than a Christian theocrat who seeks to publicly shame homosexuals.

But the fact that the sort of people with whom Cruz chooses to associate politically are not nearly as bad as the worst scum now walking the earth is hardly a point in Cruz’s favor.

Ted Cruz is running for president of the United States, the most powerful political office on the planet. As an ally and a spokesman at his political rally, Cruz chooses Phil Robertson, knowing full well that he will spew anti-gay bigotry. This sort of pandering is the political strategy by which Cruz hopes to become commander of the most awesome military force in human history. I suggest that the opportunity for gay couples to get married is not the real problem here.


Reason and Rights Republicans

Is political activism a total waste of time in today’s context, or is there something that reasonable, liberty-loving, reality-oriented people can do that might actually make a difference in the political realm?

Recently I’ve been made aware of the so-called American Capitalist Party, which, so far as I can tell, is like the Libertarian Party in purpose* except even more hopelessly inept and inconsequential. Minor-party politics in today’s context is a total waste of time. You’d be better off doing practically anything else than squandering resources on minor-party activism.

So what is my alternative? First, let me point out that political activism is not a mandatory activity. It’s far more important to educate people about individual rights and free markets than to engage in partisan politics. That said, I do think it’s possible to accomplish real and significant political goals and to use party politics as an educational tool.

I loathe today’s Republican Party—which is why I’ve recently rejoined it. I am sick and tired of theocratic conservatives and immigrant-hating, anti-market nativists ruining what used to be the party of Lincoln.

A big part of why the GOP has degenerated in recent decades is that many liberty advocates have abandoned it. Some joined the Libertarian Party (as I did), which is worse than useless, and some left politics altogether.

In today’s context, I think there’s really only one feasible political strategy for moving the country in a freer direction: Rejoin the Republican Party and turn it into the party of individual rights and free markets. No, this is not an easy task. But do not offer as an “alternative” a pie-in-the-sky fantasy that cannot possibly work (such as starting a new party without any resources or support by major political figures). There is no silver bullet. There is only hard work and countless hours of advocacy.

The alternative to my approach is to do nothing—or worse, to do nothing while pretending to do something. We are past the point in this country when self-delusion is an excusable political stance. We need to get serious, and we need to get serious now.

What I now call myself, having recently rejoined the Republican Party, is a “Reason and Rights Republican.” I think that name aptly captures the essentials of my political position. I hope you will join me. We’ve got work to do.

My article from December on “The Needed Political Realignment” has more of my thoughts on these matters. (Note: I originally wrote this post for Facebook.

* I’m aware that the Capitalist Party has a different ideological stance than the Libertarian Party, but the purpose is the same in terms of its basic political strategy of trying to create an alternative to the GOP.

Gary Kleck and John Lott Offer Closing Thoughts in Dispute over Gun Research

Recently I conducted interviews with two prominent researchers, criminologist Gary Kleck and economist John Lott, each of whose work routinely is cited by people who advocate the right of civilians to own guns for self-defense.

Both scholars discuss a wide range of topics related to gun ownership and crime, and I found both interviews to be enormously insightful.

In part, the interviews evolved into a debate between Kleck and Lott regarding Lott’s work on the concealed carry of handguns. In brief, Lott argues that state laws liberalizing concealed carry increased that practice and decreased violent crime. The logic behind this claim is straightforward: When would-be criminals fear that their potential victims might be armed, they commit fewer crimes. But Kleck is not convinced that the laws resulted in more concealed carry or in less crime. Lott and Kleck also disagree about a number of other issues.

I did not initially envision these interviews as a debate, so I did not plan for how to wind the debate down. I asked Kleck for an interview as a follow-up to an article I wrote in reply to some of Michael Shermer’s claims in which I cite some of Kleck’s work, and my query about Lott’s work was only one question out of eleven. But then, having asked Kleck about Lott’s work, I figured I owed it to Lott to see if he wanted to reply. While I was at it, I asked Lott to comment on a number of other issues as well.

Wanting to bring the conversation to a close, I asked Kleck for his final remarks. Because those remarks are somewhat detailed, I asked Lott to issue his final reply. Both sets of remarks are presented below.

Readers should bear in mind two points: First, the two scholars agree on much more than may be immediately obvious by reading their remarks here, I think; and, second, the claims presented last should not be presumed to be true or beyond rebuttal elsewhere.

The discussion has shed light on a wide variety of issues surrounding guns and crime, it has helped frame the terms of the debate insofar as Kleck and Lott disagree, and it has offered many leads for those who wish to further explore possible effects of gun laws and gun possession on crime. I deeply appreciate the time that Kleck and Lott have given to help make their views and research more accessible to the general reader. —Ari Armstrong

Gary Kleck

John Lott can’t refute the evidence that right-to-carry laws did not increase either gun ownership or frequency of carrying, so he instead invents a distorted straw man version of my arguments.

He presents a fantasy version of the supposed contrast between sociologists or criminologists and economists, claiming that the former do not think criminals respond to increasing the costs of crimes, whereas economists wisely do.

In fact, criminologists subscribe to a more sophisticated version of Lott’s simple idea: They believe that criminals respond to their perceptions of the costs of crime, including the risks of legal punishment and the risks of confronting armed victims.

The idea that I deny the possibility of criminals being deterred from crime due to the fear of victims having guns is especially absurd in light of the fact that I introduced this possibility to the scholarly world in a series of articles in the 1980s, most prominently in Social Problems in 1988 (volume 35, number 1)—long before Lott had published a word on the topic. He has merely followed a well-grooved path laid down by me.

Lott’s version of economic theory is one that has been dead for decades, superceded by behavioral economics. This version of economics states that increases in the cost of a behavior, such as criminal behavior, does not have a simple easily predicted effect on that behavior, and that it is perceived costs that affect behavior, not necessarily actual costs.

One of Lott’s many errors is to blindly assume that higher actual costs of crime invariably result in higher perceived costs of crime—something we know is not true (Kleck et al., Criminology (2005) vol. 43, no. 3). Lott has never presented a single scrap of evidence that criminals’ perceived risks of confronting armed victims increased after right-to-carry laws were enacted—he simply assumed that it had happened.

In his efforts to distort my positions, Lott goes so far as to state a blatant falsehood: “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.”

This is pure invention—I never said or even implied any such thing. The number of people legally carrying obviously did increase, but that is irrelevant to how much risk criminals faced from armed victims. A victim with a gun and a carry permit is no more of a threat to a criminal that a victim with a gun and no permit. The number of prospective victims with permits simply has no bearing on the issue of deterrence; it is the number of prospective victims who carry guns, with or without permits, that could affect criminals.

Again, Lott’s error was in simplistically assuming that if more carry permits were issued, the total number of prospective crime victims who were carrying guns must have likewise increased. Lott has never presented a scrap of empirical evidence that the total frequency of gun carrying (with or without permits) among prospective crime victims increased after right-to-carry laws were enacted. Instead, he merely assumed that total carrying frequency (with or without permits) must have increased. Survey evidence on carry permit holders, however, indicates that they did not, on net, increase their frequency of carrying after getting permits. The carry permits merely legitimated the carrying they were already doing before getting permits. Lott ignores the empirical evidence and substitutes his preferred assumption about carry permit holders: “I have to believe that when they can’t legally carry they don’t carry.” The key word is “believe.” I prefer hard empirical evidence to beliefs and assumptions.

Lott tells another especially bizarre whopper about me: “Gary feels very strongly that gun ownership doesn’t make people safer.” This one is especially weird because I am usually attacked by pro-control people for my research showing the defensive gun use is both frequent and effective; i.e., having a gun does make crime victims safer (see the aforementioned Social Problems article; Kleck and DeLone1993, Journal of Quantitative Criminology vol. 9, no. 1; and Kleck and Tark 2004, Criminology vol. 42 no. 4). In contrast, Lott himself has contributed nothing to the empirical literature on whether defensive gun by crime victims affects their risk of injury. (Research on the impact of right-to-carry laws has no bearing on this topic.)

The rest of Lott’s comments are filled with misinformation that betrays an extraordinary ignorance of the research literature. He claims that “countries with the lowest gun ownership rates do tend to have higher homicide rates.” There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support this claim, and Lott does not cite any. He tries to head off critics who would cite cross-sectional evidence that indicates he is wrong by assuming it is likely to be “misleading,” but withholds from readers the facts that (1) this is the only kind of evidence we have on the relationship between national gun ownership rates and national homicide rates, and (2) all of the evidence indicates either that national gun ownership rates have no net effect on national homicide rates (the position I endorse) or that they increase homicide rates (only poor quality studies support this position). None of the studies that actually measure gun ownership levels support Lott’s claims. His views are supported only by anecdotes about supposed increases in national gun levels that were assumed rather than empirically documented.

Finally, Lott claims that “the vast majority of” studies of the impact of right-to-carry laws indicate that they reduce crime. Unlike Lott, I do not believe that truth is determined by majority vote. It is not the most popular conclusion that is most likely to be correct; it is the one supported by the methodologically strongest research, no matter how numerous or rare the technically stronger studies may be. Lott’s primary research, and that of others who drew the same conclusions, relied on county crime data that were essentially worthless for tracking crime trends before and after right-to-carry laws were passed, because they did not correct for widespread failures of law enforcement agencies to report their crime data to the Uniform Crime Reporting program. The technically soundest studies that were not afflicted by this problem have found that right-to-carry laws have no net effect one way or the other on crime rates.

John Lott

Material from Gary Kleck is provided in block quotes.

John Lott can’t refute the evidence that right-to-carry laws did not increase either gun ownership or frequency of carrying, so he instead invents a distorted straw man version of my arguments. . . .

This is pure invention—I never said or even implied any such thing. The number of people legally carrying obviously did increase, but that is irrelevant to how much risk criminals faced from armed victims. A victim with a gun and a carry permit is no more of a threat to a criminal that a victim with a gun and no permit. The number of prospective victims with permits simply has no bearing on the issue of deterrence; it is the number of prospective victims who carry guns, with or without permits, that could affect criminals. . . .

Survey evidence on carry permit holders, however, indicates that they did not, on net, increase their frequency of carrying after getting permits. The carry permits merely legitimated the carrying they were already doing before getting permits. . . .

Relying on survey data always has its risks. There are good reasons to believe that surveys on general gun ownership by law-abiding citizens have problems. But the problem is particularly true if one is asking people to reveal information about unlawful activity, in this case carrying a gun without a concealed handgun permit.

Hard data doesn’t just consist of the soaring number of concealed handgun permits and that these permits holders are extremely law-abiding, indicating that they were unlikely to be carrying when they didn’t have a permit.

Take the number of firearms found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints. At an annual rate, this year the US is on track to have 2,624 firearms found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints, an 18.6 percent increase over the previous year. This is fairly close to the 15 percent increase in the number of concealed handgun permits, and that this doesn’t count that there are three more states that no longer require permits to carry concealed in their states.

From 2007 to 2015, the number of firearms in carry-on bags increased from 803 to about 2,624—a 227 percent increase. Meanwhile the number of concealed handgun permits increased from 4.6 to 12.8 million over that same time period—a 180% increase. But this increase ignores the fact that the number of states where you can carry a permitted concealed handgun any place in the state rose from three to eight. Again the change in firearms found in carry-on bags is very similar to the increase in concealed handgun permits.

In addition, while Gary doesn’t seem to believe that the changes in the percent of adults who are legally carrying deters criminals, there is considerable evidence that criminal behavior changes, with violent crime rates falling as the percentage of people with permits increases.

Finally, with the huge percentage increase in concealed handgun permits, it is hard to understand why all or even most of those individuals were previously carrying illegally. Concealed carry permit licenses clearly increased when Obama became president and when there are terrorist and mass public shooting attacks. But the question is why does Gary believe that people stop carrying illegally and get a permit just because Obama became president or there has been an attack.

Lott tells another especially bizarre whopper about me: “Gary feels very strongly that gun ownership doesn’t make people safer.” This one is especially weird because I am usually attacked by pro-control people for my research showing the defensive gun use is both frequent and effective. . . .

Take this quote from Gary’s initial interview with Ari: “across areas, there is no effect of gun ownership rates on crime rates, including homicide rates.” And in his last posting he makes the claim: “national gun ownership rates have no net effect on national homicide rates (the position I [Kleck] endorse).” But Gary has been making this claim even more broadly for some time.

Similarly, this past summer, Gary told Mother Jones magazine: “Do I know of anybody who specifically believe with more guns there are less crimes and they’re a credible criminologist? No.” Gary is saying clearly the debate isn’t just about whether guns are increasing. He is claiming that even if gun ownership is increasing, there won’t be reduced crime.

Everyone knows of Gary’s work on guns being used defensively, but there is a contradiction here. While Gary points to guns being used defensively and those defensive uses exceed the number of times guns are used in the commission of crime, he repeatedly says that increased gun ownership doesn’t reduce crime.

I don’t understand why Gary claims that more gun ownership doesn’t mean less crime, and I have asked him about this in multiple conversations, but whenever I have asked him to explain how these different claims could be reconciled he has declined to do so.

One of Lott’s many errors is to blindly assume that higher actual costs of crime invariably result in higher perceived costs of crime—something we know is not true. . . .. Lott has never presented a single scrap of evidence that criminals’ perceived risks of confronting armed victims increased after right-to-carry laws were enacted—he simply assumed that it had happened.

There is a large economics literature showing that higher arrest and conviction rates as well as punishment, such as the death penalty, deter criminals (a survey is provided in Chapter 4 in my book Freedomnomics).

As to evidence that armed victims deter criminals, there is a wide variety of evidence:

  • States that issue the most permits have the biggest drops in violent crime and as the percentage of the adult population with permits increases you see further drops in violent crime.
  • Concealed carry permits have different effects on different types of crime. For example, violent crimes fall relative to property crimes for the simple reason that violent crimes involve direct contact between the victim and the criminal where the presence of a concealed handgun might make a difference. Or mass public shootings fall relative to murder rates because the greater the probability that someone can defend themselves, the greater the drop in crime. When you are talking about a shooting in a public place where there a large number of adults, the probability that at least one adult out of many will be able to defend themselves is much greater than when you are dealing with a criminal attacking a lone victim.
  • If you look at adjacent counties on opposite sides of a state border, the county in the state adopting a right-to-carry law sees a drop in violent crime at the same time that the adjacent county across the state border in a state without a right-to-carry law sees and increase in violent crime. The increase in the neighboring county is about 20 percent of the size of the drop in the country with the law.

If Gary is correct that passage of right-to-carry laws have no impact on the number of people who carry, how can he explain all these different changes in crime rates? Why would crime rates change in these adjacent counties so differently? Why would violent crimes go down relative to property crimes? Or mass public shootings go down relative to other types of murders?

[Lott] claims that “countries with the lowest gun ownership rates do tend to have higher homicide rates.” There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support this claim, and Lott does not cite any.

Well, if Gary wants some evidence on that score, he can look at some evidence available here.

[Lott] tries to head off critics who would cite cross-sectional evidence that indicates he is wrong by assuming it is likely to be “misleading,” but withholds from readers the facts that (1) this is the only kind of evidence we have on the relationship between national gun ownership rates and national homicide rates, and (2) all of the evidence indicates either that national gun ownership rates have no net effect on national homicide rates (the position I endorse) or that they increase homicide rates (only poor quality studies support this position).

Cross-sectional evidence is not particularly useful in accurately determining relationships, simply because purely cross-sectional doesn’t allow one to account for all the differences in crime rates across places. A detailed discussion is available here.

Take a simple example, many point out that compared to the US the UK has relatively low murder rates and very restrictive gun control. They then attribute the lower homicide rate in the UK due to its gun control regulations. But the problem is that the UK’s homicide rates went up by 50 percent for eight years after the handgun ban was imposed in January 1997, and it only stopped going up and started going down after a large 18 percent increase in police.

That said, despite Gary’s claim, cross-sectional data isn’t the only data that we have “on the relationship between national gun ownership rates and national homicide rates.” One very simple example is that every single place in the world that has banned guns has seen an increase in murder rates. It isn’t just places such as Washington, DC and Chicago that banned handguns and saw increases in murder rates. Gun control advocates claim that bans can’t work in those cities because criminals can still get guns in neighboring areas or states. While this explanation might explain why crime rates don’t fall as much as gun controllers predicted, this can’t explain why the murder rates soared. In addition, even when island nations have adopted gun bans, you see large increases in murder rates.

Thus Gary is incorrect on all these counts.


The Needed Political Realignment

My son is now five months old. I worry about the country he will grow up in, considering the deep problems of modern American politics. What we need—and what I intend to do my part to help achieve—is a political realignment that will move back to the political forefront the deepest American values of liberty and prosperity.

The main political problem today is that the Democratic Party increasingly is driven by the deeply statist ideologies of egalitarianism and environmentalism, while the Republican Party increasingly is driven by the equally statist ideologies of theocratic religion and nativism. Political room is diminishing for those of us—I think the majority of Americans—who advocate a broadly rights-respecting government that promotes a free-market economy, national security against foreign threats, the separation of church and state, and individual liberties as articulated most prominently by the Bill of Rights.

Start with the Democrats. Remember the days of free trader, welfare reformer, “the era of big government is over” Bill Clinton? He has been replaced by Hillary Clinton, whose litmus test for Supreme Court nominees is that they agree to weaken the First Amendment’s protection of political speech; who suggests the federal government consider confiscating guns from peaceable Americans; who panders to the worst eat-the-rich elements of her party; and who wishes to use “climate change” as a pretext to establish massive command-and-control bureaucracies to micromanage industry and siphon wealth to eco-cronies. It is not without reason that liberty advocate (and lifelong Democrat) Dave Kopel calls Clinton (along with Donald Trump) a proto-fascist.

Continue with the Republicans. No sensible person could claim that Donald Trump promotes free markets or civil liberties without erupting in sardonic laughter. He and Ted Cruz, currently leading the Republican field in the presidential race, draw much of their support from nativist xenophobic protectionists. Even the relatively market-friendly Cruz sounds like a market-hating union thug when it comes to immigration. Then there is the religion, with Republicans debating whether to criminalize all abortion or to permit an exception for women who are raped. Although Cruz is the worst of the bunch when it comes to pandering to theocrats, on the plus side he does sometimes support free markets, and he does outline a foreign policy alternative to the destructive “nation-building” neoconservatism of George W. Bush as well as to the “blame America first” inclinations of Rand Paul.

One notable feature of the political scene is that candidates largely seek to define themselves as alternatives to their opponents. When recently I criticized Cruz’s open alliance with theocrats, the most common response I got was, “But surely you couldn’t support Hillary!” To a large degree, Democrats run against the the faith-based statism of Republicans, while Republicans run against the egalitarian statism of Democrats.

Before we consider what is to be done (at the level of practical politics), we need to reflect a bit on the coalitions of interest groups that currently drive the two major parties. The Republicans have the nativists, the evangelicals, the more-rural gun owners, the security-firsters, and (at times) the capitalists and libertarians. The Democrats have the egalitarians and multiculturalists, the environmentalists (so called), the unionists, the central planners and “nudger” busy-bodies, the secularists, the cosmopolites (who are more open to immigration), and the urbanites (who tend to be anti-gun). Both parties are overrun with protectionists and cronies.

Neither party offers a welcoming home to a pro-capitalist, gay marriage promoting, gun toting, immigrant friendly, defense conscious atheist such as me.

The coalitions that comprise the two major parties are marriages of convenience and historical accident, not of love. If I could reassemble the factions as on a chess board, I would create a freedom party and a statist party, and assign each faction its appropriate slot. But obviously that is not possible.

What, then, can we do? To my mind, the best way forward is to expunge from the Republican Party (or at least to marginalize within it) the nativists and theocracy-leaning evangelicals. That would make a lot more room within the party for secularists, champions of church-state separation, gays and immigrants and their supporters, women who don’t think they should be charged with murder for getting an early-term abortion, and liberty-minded urbanites.

To help pursue this goal, I am registering Republican at my earliest convenience. I was Republican long ago, then (foolishly) Libertarian, then unaffiliated. Part of my reason for registering unaffiliated is that I did not want to get drawn into time-sucking party activism. But at this point I see no other feasible way forward, other than to work within the Republican Party (here addressing only the level of on-the-ground politics, not other sorts of activism).

I urge capitalists, libertarians, Objectivists, and liberty-minded secularists to also register as Republican voters and to participate, at least to some extent, in the Republican primary system. It is time to right the Republican ship, to save it from the rocky shores toward which it is careening dangerously.

Very briefly, here is the main constellation of positions I’d like to see the Republican Party come to take:

Free Markets: Producers should be praised, not demonized and looted. At least presumptively, consumer choice and reasonable torts, not bureaucratic regulations, should hold businesses accountable. Government spending should be tightly constrained. Business subsidies and rent-seeking regulations should be eliminated. Taxes generally should be low, and corporate taxes should be reduced at least to make them globally competitive. Presumptively, the welfare state should be simplified and at least reduced, although (within the bounds of the party) we can debate its proper size and scope.

Free Speech: Freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment is a bedrock principle of our free society. If a person or group wants to finance and create a film or other work about Hillary Clinton or anyone else during a political season, such is that person or group’s right. Government’s proper role in this field is to consistently protect the right to freedom of speech–especially when some find that speech offensive. If you don’t consistently defend the right to freedom of speech, you don’t belong in this party.

Self-Defense: The Founders included the Second Amendment for a reason, and it wasn’t just for duck hunting or for arming a standing military. In general, government should take action against those who, through their actions or explicit threats, pose an objective danger to others; government should not punish peaceable Americans for the crimes of others. We can debate with our new skeptical friends what are the outer limits of the right to keep and bear arms, but we’re not going to entertain (within the confines of the party) nonsensical proposals such as gun confiscation or sales bans based on cosmetic features.

National Defense: The twin errors are “nation building” without a clear and direct advantage to Americans, and failing to take decisive action against those who attack or threaten to attack America and Americans. We want a strong military, narrowly focused on the task of defending Americans from objective threats. Within that general framework, of course there is much room for reasonable discussion and disagreement.

Religion: We welcome people of all religions. We oppose efforts to use government force to institute the sectarian beliefs of any particular religion.

Gay Rights: Gay people have a civil right to get married. Get over it. Government must not discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. However, private business owners also have rights, including the freedom of contract and association.

Abortion: The notion that a just-fertilized zygote is the moral and properly the legal equivalent of a born infant is faith-based fantasy. We can, within the party, argue about certain possible restrictions on abortions in the later stages. But the ideas that abortion should be treated as murder from the moment of conception, that birth control methods should be banned if they might prevent a zygote from implanting in the uterus, and similar absurdities have no place in a modern political party.

Immigration: Yes to peaceable immigrants, yes to free markets, yes to freedom of association; no to demonstrably dangerous immigrants; no to automatically giving immigrants the ability to vote. At least presumptively, Americans should be able to invite onto their property and into their businesses people of their choosing. Our goal is to normalize the lives of peaceable people currently in the country illegally, not to send out squads of armed men to round up those people and forcibly remove them. We should loosen immigration restrictions, not tighten them, at least by expanding worker visas. Our country was built by immigrants, and every one of us is an immigrant or the progeny of immigrants.

Climate: We all agree that carbon dioxide emissions affect the climate; the important questions are, what will be the long-term consequences, and what should government do about them? Government should protect the rights of producers to develop energy, including nuclear energy. Government should not arbitrarily regulate energy producers, nor confiscate people’s wealth to subsidize cronies at home or corrupt governments abroad. We can debate whether government should take other legal actions as consistent with a rights-respecting society.

The Republican Party I envision will rightly and proudly bear the mantles of reason, of science, of progress, of prosperity, of common sense, of decency, of optimism, above all of individual rights.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican politician of consequence. I think it is no stretch to say that Lincoln would be ashamed of what his party has become. I say it is once again time to make the Republican Party the proud party of rights and of reason.

Paris Agreement Is Worst Way for Government to Approach Climate Change

Governments can approach the potential harms of climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions in three general ways. It can take no direct action but unshackle energy producers and private organizations to take whatever actions they deem appropriate; it can treat carbon emissions as a type of property right; or it can engage in Soviet-style micromanaging of the economy, complete with national and international subsidies and industrial planning.

The command-and-control approach is the worst possible one. So of course that’s the one governments currently are pursuing in Paris. To the extent the United States pursues the agreement, we can expect the federal government to subsidize hopelessly infeasible forms of energy; to confiscate wealth from U.S. citizens to subsidize corrupt foreign governments; and to throttle producers and consumers of fossil fuels through bureaucratically imposed regulations. The result is that government will slow economic growth relative to what it could and should be, and we will be poorer for it.

There’s a lot to be said for the “do nothing” approach—which really means that government should get out of the way and let innovators innovate. Simple economics dictates that people will stop burning fossil fuels when they can get cheaper electricity from other sources. Except in special circumstances (such as where a large river can be dammed), the only feasible way to get inexpensive, large-scale energy is via nuclear power, as far as I see. Arguably, but for government throttling the development of nuclear power, we’d already live in a mostly emissions-free world.

Of course, in a free society, private organizations also are free to fund research of their choosing; to engage in public education campaigns; to buy up mineral rights for conservation purposes; and so on.

Although I cannot at present offer anything other than a tentative sketch of the proposal, I’m also interested in the possibility of treating carbon emissions as a type of property right. (Please note that my views in this area are tentative and subject to change.)

Obviously we already deal with other types of pollution via property rights. For example, I can emit a certain amount of odors and toxins from my property (such as a certain amount of smoke from fires), but beyond a certain amount my emissions interfere with my neighbors’ use of their property. We handle many kinds of pollutants, ranging from toxins to noise to light, via property rights. I see no reason, in principle, why this could not be extended to carbon emissions.

Of course, it is an open question whether increased emissions actually will cause substantial harm, relative to the clear and immediate harm of throttling energy production. Matt Ridley argues that slightly warmer average temperatures might even be beneficial on net. In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein argues that the effects of carbon emissions are “decelerating” and “logarithmic,” meaning that the more carbon dioxide we emit, the less additional impact each unit of emissions has.

But, for a moment, let’s assume that the mildly alarmist view of climate change is correct, and that if we more than roughly double our total cumulative carbon dioxide emissions, we’ll get ourselves into some serious trouble. As Ronald Bailey explains, the typical thinking along these lines is that “humanity has already used up 515 billion tons of its carbon budget, which means that there’s only 485 billion tons left.” (Bailey further explains that to “get carbon dioxide equivalents, multiply by 3.67.”)

If it could be objectively proven that total emissions of (let’s round) 500 billion tons of additional carbon is the most we could safely handle (and that’s a big “if”), then one obvious approach would be to recognize property rights in that amount of emissions, if the legalities of such could be worked out (another big “if”).

It’s unclear to me how governments should pursue a property rights regimen in this area, or if it can even be done. But one hypothetical possibility would be to simply give each living person one equal share of the emissions. The problems of enforcing such a thing globally are enormous, but the matter potentially could be handled through treaty. If such a thing were possible, obviously the result would be the immediate creation of a market by which energy producers bought up rights to emit. In practice, producers in the U.S. and in other wealthier regions would pay out individuals (not governments) in poorer regions, resulting in higher fuel costs at home.

Notice that one result of a property rights system in carbon emissions would be that some people would think seriously about how to “farm” emissions. For example, if I could remove a billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere, I could sell the right to emit that much to a producer of fossil fuels. I haven’t looked into the science of this, but my guess is that it would be a lot better to use solar energy to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere so that we can burn more cheap coal.

Notice also how a property rights system would result in market innovation that government regulators otherwise would squash. For example, the current government strategy is simply to outlaw coal. But, in a property rights system, it might make sense to burn coal in a cleaner plant.

The broader point is, government planners cannot possibly know the best ways to generate energy and control carbon emissions, and they’re extremely likely to direct funds and regulatory controls to favor the politically powerful.

Here’s another wrinkle that could be built into a property rights plan, to handle the uncertainty of future problems. Let’s consider one possible scenario. We could say that we’re going to burn through another 200 billion tons of carbon without limits, then check to see what the results are. If the results are milder than expected, then we could ditch or revise the property rights rules as needed. On the other hand, if the first 200 billion additional tons of carbon strongly indicated that 500 billion total tons is indeed the responsible limit, then we could implement property rights for the additional 300 billion tons.

Again, what I’m offering here is merely a sketch. I don’t know if property rights in carbon emissions can be sustained in legal theory or as a practical matter of international politics. But what is clear is that the command-and-control approach will be disastrous. Certainly government should unshackle energy producers and other innovators. That alone may resolve the problem. Beyond that, a property rights approach is the only other potential strategy that governments should pursue—if it can be established that such can be practically established within the boundaries of justice.

Hickenlooper, Concealed Carry, and the Planned Parenthood Murders

Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper chose the immediate aftermath of the Planned Parenthood murders to insult and demean peaceable gun owners in the area. Today the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Greeley Tribune carried an op-ed by Dave Kopel and me titled, “Hickenlooper’s shots at law-abiding gun owners don’t help.” From the op-ed:

Hickenlooper told CNN: “In Colorado Springs, it’s one of the more conservative parts of the state, we probably have more people that have licenses for concealed weapons, probably more guns around. That didn’t help.”

Hickenlooper’s gratuitous insults are baseless. The only person with a concealed carry permit who had anything to do with Planned Parenthood was the clinic’s armed security guard. Apparently deterred by the armed defender, the criminal did not attack the clinic until after the guard had left for the day.

The op-ed goes on to discuss the heroism of Jeanne Assam, who previously used her concealed handgun in Colorado Springs to successfully defend a church full of people from a mass murderer.

The op-ed continues:

The mass shootings you’ve never heard about are the ones that were stopped by lawfully armed citizens, so the number of fatalities did not become “mass.” Recent ones include Logan Square, Chicago (2015, Uber driver), a West Philadelphia barbershop (2015, passer-by intervened), and Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, Pa. (2014, armed doctor). [Read the entire piece.]

Here I want to mention some additional notes about the case and the op-ed, in no particular order.

Although my name appears first and I wrote some initial text, Kopel took the piece over and contributed most of the interesting material.

It is not entirely clear whether the guard on duty at the Planned Parenthood office prior to the attack was armed that day, nor whether the perpetrator intentionally waited until the guard left to attack. Here’s what KKTV reports:

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains President and CEO Vicki Cowart told 11 News over the weekend that safety measures are already in place. . . .

Cowart said the Planned Parenthood clinic off Centennial Boulevard in Colorado Springs had one security guard on duty that day.

“He had finished his duties and he was gone by the time the individual showed up,” said Cowart.

Cowart said no one replaces that security guard. Most of the time, she said security guards are armed.

For more regarding Hickenlooper’s remarks, see CNN’s blog, related video, and an article by Valerie Richardson for the Washington Times. I called Hickenlooper’s office to ask for clarification; I left a message but my call was not returned.

Ted Cruz Would Ban Abortion Even for Rape Victims

Of the four Republicans currently leading the pack in the presidential race—Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio—one candidate would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. That candidate, it should surprise no one, is Cruz.

As I pointed out yesterday, Cruz signed Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) PACs’ “Statement of Principles.” Those principles state: “GRTL opposes abortion for pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.” Cruz signed his name agreeing “to uphold these principles and positions.” (Note: GRTL’s web page is down as of this writing; I’ve archived copies of the relevant documents.)

Just to be clear: Ted Cruz signed a document declaring that abortion should be outlawed even if a woman is brutally raped and does not wish to carry her attacker’s child to term.

Apparently, Cruz and his supporters live under the delusion that he can win the general election with that position.

Not even Marco Rubio shares Cruz’s position here. True, reports the Associated Press, previously Rubio denied that he’d allow exceptions for rape and incest. However, more recently, he has said, “I, as president, will sign a bill that has exceptions” for rape and incest.

Ben Carson advocates the use of the “abortion pill” RU-486 in cases of rape and incest.

Perhaps we should congratulate Cruz for making Trump appear to be the voice of reason on an issue (comparatively speaking); even Trump advocates an abortion ban with exceptions for “rape, incest, if the mother is going to die.”

Lindsey Graham bluntly points out the political problem for Cruz:

Anybody with that position [against abortion in the case of rape and incest] will get creamed. I would never tell a woman who’s been raped she’s got to carry the child of the rapist. . . . I appreciate your passion for the pro-life issue but you’re outside the mainstream and you cannot get elected.

(See also’s report on Graham’s remarks on the matter elsewhere.)

Recently I described how Cruz is actively allying himself with religious conservatives, including some outright theocrats. Add that to his backing of “personhood” legislation, with its total ban on abortion, and I just don’t see how Cruz is electable.

An aside: As my long-time readers are aware, I have an affinity for Ayn Rand’s work. Rand called her philosophy Objectivism. What might Rand have made of the fact that there currently is an “Objectivists for Ted Cruz” Facebook community? We can get some idea from the fact that Rand denounced Ronald Reagan on the grounds that he opposed “the right to abortion” and allied himself with those who sought the “unconstitutional union of religion and politics.”

When it comes to allying with theocratic conservatives, Ted Cruz makes Ronald Reagan look like a piker.


Yes, Ted Cruz’s Policies Would Outlaw Some Forms of Birth Control

Does Ted Cruz want to ban birth control? Stated so broadly, the answer obviously is no, he does not wish to ban all forms of birth control. However, if Cruz takes seriously the policies he explicitly endorses, then, yes, he does want to ban some types of birth control.

Cruz’s policies do not imply any restrictions of true contraceptives—forms of birth control that prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg, such as a condom—but they imply that any form of birth control that does or can act as an abortifacient—preventing an embryo from implanting or growing in the uterus—should be banned. That includes the copper IUD, among other things.

Arguably, Cruz’s policies imply that the hormonal birth control pill and hormonal IUD should be banned as well, because those things might sometimes act as abortifacients. It is unclear (to me) whether Cruz thinks the hormonal birth control pill and the hormonal IUD can act as abortifacients. The FDA thinks that they can, and many of Cruz’s allies claim that they can and that therefore they should be banned (details below).

Certainly Cruz’s policies would ban “the abortion pill” RU-486, brand named Mifeprex, which can be used “in the first 49 days of pregnancy.” We can pick nits over whether we should call drug-induced abortion a form of “birth control.” I think the way most people use the term “birth control,” and the most sensible use of that term, is to refer to any method that prevents a pregnancy from occurring or proceeding, except for a surgical abortion. Thus, birth control includes some methods that act exclusively as contraceptives and some methods that do or can act as abortifacients.

There is another problem with the language we must address: Most doctors consider a “pregnancy” to begin after fertilization, when an embryo implants in the uterus. So is it accurate to call a form of birth control that prevents implantation an “abortifacient,” even though pregnancy has not yet begun? I think it makes sense to use the term “abortifacient” in this context; otherwise, there’s no word to describe a form of birth control that acts after fertilization to prevent implantation. Certainly it makes no sense to refer to something that prevents implantation of an embryo as a “contraceptive”; it’s not preventing conception. By my schema, then, “contraception” and “abortifacient” cover all possible types of birth control (where some types can act as either a contraceptive or an abortifacient).

Before picking back up with the technicalities of birth control, let’s turn to recent discussions about Cruz’s views on on the matter. On November 30, someone asked Cruz about birth control. Cruz’s reply was both rhetorically masterful and deeply evasive. Here’s what he said (relying on ABC’s transcription):

Last I checked, we don’t have a rubber shortage in America. Look, when I was in college, we had a machine in the bathroom, you put 50 cents in and voila. So, yes, anyone who wants contraceptives can access them, but it’s an utter made-up nonsense issue.

Now, listen, I have been a conservative my entire life. I have never met anybody, any conservative, who wants to ban contraceptives. As I noted, Heidi and I, we have two little girls. I’m very glad we don’t have 17. . . .

So what do you do [if you’re Hillary Clinton], you go, “Ah ha, the condom police. I’m going to make up a completely made-up threat and try to scare a bunch of folks who are not paying a lot of attention into thinking someone’s going to steal their birth control.” What nonsense.

On December 1, Clinton’s team replied with an article titled, “Ted Cruz says no one’s trying to ban contraception. Here are 5 times Ted Cruz tried to ban contraception.”

Note how both Cruz and Clinton rely on confusion about the terms at hand. Cruz says conservatives don’t want to “ban contraceptives”—ignoring the fact that many conservatives want to ban abortifacients and consider the pill and IUD to be abortifacients. And Clinton misuses the term “contraception” to refer to all types of birth control.

Clinton also promotes the confusion between banning something and declining to subsidize it with tax dollars or otherwise promote it with government force. I agree with Cruz that people should not be forced to subsidize birth control and that government ought not interfere with freedom of contract (which can involve employment policies regarding birth control). Three of Clinton’s five points pertain not to proposed bans but to taxes and employment regulations.

Clinton’s fifth point claims that Cruz wants to “try to ban emergency contraception.” But nothing in Clinton’s piece, or in the Salon article that Clinton references, support her claim.

Clinton’s remaining point, her first one listed, is that Cruz “supported a so-called personhood amendment, which could criminalize abortion and could ban some forms of birth control.” On this score Clinton is absolutely right—except that “personhood” not merely “could” but certainly would ban some forms of birth control (if implemented fully).

Let’s establish the facts showing that Cruz supports “personhood.” Georgia Right to Life PAC endorses Ted Cruz for president. The organization clearly lays out its “criteria for consideration of candidate endorsement” in its “endorsement guidelines.” Candidates must read proclaim that they agree with the organization’s “GRTL PAC Pro-Life Principles.” Those principles state, among other things, that RU-486 should be banned (except for possible “non-abortion related purposes”). This document also states that “personhood begins at the moment of fertilization” and that, by signing the document (as Cruz did), candidates agree to protect the “civil rights” of embryos from fertilization. Thus, the document implies, but does not explicitly state, that any form of birth control that may act as an abortifacient should be banned.

A media release from Georgia Right to Life confirms: “Senator Cruz received the endorsement after reviewing his activities supporting personhood and receiving his signed GRTL PAC Personhood Affirmation, which asks that candidates support a personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

I don’t think anyone was confused about whether Cruz wants to ban Mifeprex; obviously he does. The major remaining question is whether he wants to ban the birth control pill or IUD.

So far as I’m aware, Cruz has never explicitly stated whether he wants additional legal restrictions or bans on any form of hormonal birth control pill or IUD. (I contacted Cruz’s campaign asking for clarification but never heard back.)

There are two related issues involved. First, does the pill or IUD, in fact, ever act as an abortifacient, or does it always act only as a contraceptive? Second, does Cruz believe that it does? If Cruz doesn’t think the pill or IUD acts as an abortifacient, then he can coherently claim he doesn’t want to ban them as a supporter of “personhood.” On the other hand, if Cruz concludes that the pill or IUD can act as an abortifacient, then, logically, by supporting “personhood” he has committed himself to seeking a ban.

Georgia Right to Life clearly states its view of the matter:

GRTL takes no position on birth control methods, which are contraceptive rather than abortive in their actions. We are opposed to those birth control methods which act as abortifacients. These could include forms of the pill which act to prevent implantation of the newly formed human into the lining of the womb; forms of the IUD, which can act the same; and prostaglandin suppository drugs, which act to cause delivery of whatever size baby the uterus contains.

Georgia Right to Life, then, certainly thinks that the “personhood” statement that Cruz signed does (or at least “could”) entail a ban on the pill and IUD.

Now, some people on the left ridicule conservatives who claim that forms of birth control that prevent implantation are “abortifacients.” For example, the Salon article that Clinton references in turn cites a document published by Princeton and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, which says this:

[U]sing emergency contraceptive pills (also called “morning after pills” or “day after pills”) prevents pregnancy after sex. It does not cause an abortion. (In fact, because emergency contraception helps women avoid getting pregnant when they are not ready or able to have children, it can reduce the need for abortion.)

Emergency contraceptive pills work before pregnancy begins. According to leading medical authorities—such as the National Institutes of Health and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg implants in the lining of a woman’s uterus. Implantation begins five to seven days after sperm fertilizes the egg, and the process is completed several days later. Emergency contraception will not work if a woman is already pregnant.

That line of argument is deeply dishonest (and also deeply stupid, insofar as it ignores the obvious literal meaning of “contraception” as preventing conception). For religious conservatives who care about these issues, the entire discussion hinges on whether a form of birth control prevents fertilization or acts to destroy an embryo—whether or not it has implanted in the uterus. The document cited essentially plays a word game to artificially define “contraceptive” to include something that causes the destruction of a pre-implanted embryo.

The stronger argument is that “emergency contraception” is just that—contraception—and that it acts to prevent fertilization. That’s what Planned Parenthood maintains happens: “Emergency contraception pills work by keeping a woman’s ovary from releasing an egg for longer than usual. Pregnancy cannot happen if there is no egg to join with sperm.”

The main official page for Ella, a major brand of emergency contraception, claims the same thing, that the drug “works by preventing ovulation, even during the time in your cycle when you’re most fertile, for five full days following unprotected sex.” If that’s all that “emergency contraception” does, then there’s no reason to ban it according to to the commitments of “personhood.”

However, the FDA-approved prescription information for Ella claims that its methods of action are broader: “The likely primary mechanism of action of ulipristal acetate for emergency contraception is therefore inhibition or delay of ovulation; however, alterations to the endometrium that may affect implantation may also contribute to efficacy.”

In other words, if the prescription information is accurate, then Ella can act either as a contraceptive or as an abortifacient (in the sense that it can prevent implantation of an embryo).

So what about the standard birth control pill and the IUD? Here again, the official prescription information claims that they can act as an abortifacient (as defined here).

For example, the prescription information for Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo states: “COCs [combined oral contraceptives] lower the risk of becoming pregnant primarily by suppressing ovulation. Other possible mechanisms may include cervical mucus changes that inhibit sperm penetration and endometrial changes that reduce the likelihood of implantation.”

The prescription information for the Mirena IUD states: “Mirena may work in several ways including thickening cervical mucus, inhibiting sperm movement, reducing sperm survival, and thinning the lining of your uterus. It is not known exactly how these actions work together to prevent pregnancy.”

Obviously if the lining of the uterus thins, that could prevent implantation of an embryo. The language that it is “not known exactly” how the device works is not likely to comfort most advocates of “personhood,” who regard a just-fertilized egg as the moral equivalent of a born baby.

Nevertheless, writing for the Federalist, David Harsanyi confidently proclaims that, while “personhood” bans abortion in principle, “it certainly doesn’t ban condoms or the birth control pill.” But, somehow, I suppose that advocates of “personhood” measures will be more impressed with the official, government-approved prescription information than with Harsanyi’s groundless certitude.

But maybe the FDA-approved prescription information is wrong: Maybe the pill and IUD never act by preventing implantation. That’s what many people argue, at least regarding the pill and hormone-based (as opposed to copper) IUD.

Pam Belluck’s 2012 article for the New York Times argues that the pill and hormonal IUD, along with emergency contraception, don’t prevent implantation (or at least that there’s no reason to think they do).

She adds:

By contrast, scientists say, research suggests that the only other officially approved form of emergency contraception, the copper intrauterine device (also a daily birth control method), can work to prevent pregnancy after an egg has been fertilized.

So, by the logic of “personhood,” at least the copper IUD should be banned, along with the abortion pill, even if the regular pill and hormonal IUDs are found not to prevent implantation. (As Belluck adds, “Despite the accumulating evidence” about hormonal pills and IUDs, “several abortion opponents said they remain unpersuaded.”)

Of course, it would be very easy for Cruz to issue a statement along these lines: “I, Ted Cruz, believe that the abortion pill [should / should not] be banned; that emergency contraception [should / should not] be banned; that the hormonal birth control pill [should / should not] be banned; that hormonal IUDs [should / should not] be banned; and that copper IUDs [should / should not] be banned.”

If Cruz would issue such a statement, as I’ve asked him to do, that would count as definitive evidence of his views in these matters. (Of course, depending on Cruz’s answers, one might argue that they either comport or conflict with his stated position on “personhood.”)

I would be shocked if Cruz in fact issued such a clear-cut statement. After all, politics today is not about clearly articulating one’s views on the issues; it is about obfuscating one’s views in order to pander to as many voters as possible. And Cruz can obfuscate with the best of them.

Regardless, given Cruz’s explicit commitment to “personhood,” he has also logically committed himself to trying to ban the abortion pill and copper IUD—and, if they are found to sometimes act as abortifacients (a big “if”), the birth control pill and hormonal IUD.

Let’s see Cruz try to parse all that going into the general election, if he makes it that far.


Ted Cruz’s Dangerous Pandering to Theocrats

As a free-market secularist, I see Ted Cruz, politically, as a split personality. On one hand (to list a few examples), he speaks eloquently for freedom of political speech,1 he opposes politically controlled health care (at least as manifest in ObamaCare),2 and he used his tenure with the Federal Trade Commission to move that agency in a direction less hostile to free markets.3 On the other hand, he makes religion a centerpiece of his politics; for example, for religious reasons he advocates various restrictions on abortion (although he has been remarkably cagey about how far he’d prefer to go with such restrictions).[Update: See my December 4 article about Cruz’s support for abortion bans.]

What most worries me about Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate are not those explicit elements of his platform that clash with the principles of liberty, but his open pandering to evangelical voters, even to outright theocrats. This matters, not only because Cruz will be beholden to the voters who elect him (if he wins), but because Cruz is actively supporting and helping to organize a religious-conservative movement likely to play a major role in American politics for many years. To those who, like me, worry that the Republican Party began to slide toward faith-centered politics many years ago, Cruz’s acceleration of that trend is frightening.

From the beginning, a centerpiece of Cruz’s strategy has been to win evangelicals to his side. In March, Cruz delivered his campaign announcement at Liberty University, a Christian institution (which, incidentally, features the “Center for Creation Studies” that promotes a “young-earth creationist view”).5 During his faith-heavy remarks, Cruz said, “Today, roughly half of born again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”6 This is a theme that Cruz has emphasized repeatedly.7

The fact that Cruz is so actively and thoroughly tying his campaign to the evangelical movement is by itself alarming. Cruz’s campaign has (as examples) issued news releases announcing the formation of a “national prayer team” and bragging that Cruz’s “Faith Leadership Team [includes] more than 200 faith leaders from around the nation.”8 When it comes time for Cruz (should he win) to nominate Supreme Court justices (among other things), it’s pretty clear where his loyalties will lie.

But Cruz has done far more than ally himself with mainstream evangelical voters; he has openly pandered to outright theocrats. Anyone who thinks my use of the term theocrat is hyperbolic or exaggerated is welcome to try to explain how treating abortion legally as murder, from the moment of conception, as many of Cruz’s allies wish to do, or arguing that states justifiably execute homosexuals or abortion providers at least in some circumstances, as at least two of Cruz’s allies do, is not theocratic in nature.

I must pause to distinguish my approach here from that of leftist provocateurs. (I consider myself to be on the political right, as Craig Biddle defines it, which I consider to be the natural home of rational secularists of the broadly Enlightenment tradition.)9 I am well aware of the Saul Alinsky-inspired techniques of character assassination10—indeed, I and my friends have at times been the targets of such attacks. My criticisms here include rather than exclude the relevant context, and I blame people only for what they have demonstrably said or done. I do not blame Cruz for the remarks that his allies make; I blame him only for actively allying himself, in the context of a presidential campaign, with people who express frankly horrific views. It is intellectually dishonest of leftists to make spurious character attacks on their opponents—and it is also intellectually dishonest of conservatives to rationalize away well-grounded criticisms of a conservative. Hopefully readers can bear that in mind as we proceed.

Troy Newman on “Bloodguilt”

First consider the case of Troy Newman. On November 19, Cruz’s campaign issued a news release bragging that Cruz picked up Newman’s endorsement. The release states:

Today, Presidential candidate Ted Cruz secured the endorsement of leading pro-life activist Troy Newman—a driving force in the recent effort to expose Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of baby parts in a series of undercover videos. Newman is the President of Operation Rescue, one of the most prominent pro-life Christian activist organizations in the nation. . . .

“I am grateful to receive the endorsement of Troy Newman,” Cruz said. “He has served as a voice for the unborn for over 25 years, and works tirelessly every day for the pro-life cause. We need leaders like Troy Newman in this country who will stand up for those who do not have a voice.”11

Remember, then, that Cruz and Newman are not connected merely in some casual way; Newman has openly expressed his support for Cruz’s presidential bid, and Cruz has publicly welcomed that support and touted his political alliance with Newman.

So what does Troy Newman advocate? Consider some of Newman’s views as expressed in his book Their Blood Cries Out, which he coauthored with Cheryl Sullenger. That book states (among many other bizarre things): “[T]he United States government has abrogated its responsibility to properly deal with the blood-guilty. This responsibility rightly involves executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge bloodguilt from the land and people.”12

Newman claims that this passage has been taken out of context. So what is the context? Here is how Newman’s own organization, Operation Rescue, explains it:

In that book, which was a theological study of the Biblical doctrine of bloodguilt, Newman and Sullenger discuss the Old Testament principle that required those who commit murder should be sentenced to death by a court of justice. They surmised that if indeed abortion is murder, then it would be acceptable, based on the Old Testament teachings, for governments to treat it as it does any other murder with those convicted through a court of law subject to the same punishments other murderers would face, including capital punishment.

Yet, not surprisingly, [Terri] Butler [an Australian critic] neglected to mention that later chapters in that now out of print book referenced the New Testament concept that mercy is preferable to judgement, and that repentance and restoration is available through Jesus Christ to all men who seek it.13

Notice that this is the explanation that’s supposed to make us feel comfortable with Newman’s remarks and persuade us that Newman is a perfectly reasonable fellow.

So is Newman’s organization claiming that state executions of abortion providers was justified only in Old Testament times, and that, today, “mercy” always should push aside “judgment”? No, it is not. Newman leaves open the possibility that “Old Testament teachings” might still be relevant for modern governments—and his book explicitly mentions the United States in the context of a government that may properly execute abortion providers.

The same release quotes Newman’s coauthor Sullenger, now Senior Vice President of Operation Rescue (under Newman): “There is a distinct difference between saying that the Bible gives the authority to governments to execute justice, as we explained in the book, and advocating that individuals commit murder of abortion providers.” Yes, there is a distinct difference. Newman and Sullenger advocate only state executions of abortion providers, not vigilante executions. So helpful of her to clear that up.

Incidentally, Sullenger herself did not always so keenly recognize the distinction between state-sanctioned violence and individual violence. The same Operation Rescue statement discusses “Cheryl Sullenger’s conviction in 1988 of conspiring to bomb an abortion facility in San Diego, California the previous year.” She “expressed remorse” for her actions, and she now works “within peaceful and legal means” to ban all abortion from the moment of conception and to empower government to execute abortion providers.

The same statement by Operation Rescue explains Newman’s earlier remarks about the Reverend Paul Jennings Hill, who murdered an abortion provider and his bodyguard in 1994 and who was subsequently executed for the crime.

At the time, Newman stated, “A Florida judge denied Rev. Hill his right to present a defense that claimed that the killing of the abortionist was necessary to save the lives of the pre-born babies that were scheduled to be killed by abortion that day.”

That was a perfectly reasonable position for Newman to take, Newman’s Operation Rescue assures us:

This statement has been frequently misinterpreted as “evidence” of Newman’s support for the position that murdering abortion providers is justifiable homicide. That is a gross mischaracterization of his statement.

Newman deplored the fact that Hill had murdered two people, but felt the need to express disappointment that the court refused to allow Hill to use the defense of his choosing. . . .

Do you see the distinction? Newman was not claiming that Rev. Hill’s execution of two people constituted “justifiable homicide”; he was merely claiming that Rev. Hill should have been able to argue in court that the executions were justifiable homicide. (Readers of Newman’s original 2003 release, with its language about “the innocent victims of abortion that Hill endeavored to rescue” and the “many examples where taking the life in defense of innocent human beings is legally justified,” might forgive Newman’s critics for thinking that Newman was defending Hill’s actions.)14

Bearing these background facts about Newman in mind, recall that Ted Cruz, currently one of the Republican frontrunners in the race to become the next president of the United States, said on November 19: “I am grateful to receive the endorsement of Troy Newman. He has served as a voice for the unborn for over 25 years, and works tirelessly every day for the pro-life cause. We need leaders like Troy Newman in this country who will stand up for those who do not have a voice.”

Contra Cruz, we do not need such leaders—nor do we need leaders who count such people as allies.

Kevin Swanson on “The Death Penalty for Homosexuals”

During the “Freedom 2015 National Religious Liberties Conference” held November 6–7 in Des Moines, Iowa, Ted Cruz appeared on stage with Colorado pastor Kevin Swanson to discuss religion in America. Swanson’s appearance at the conference was not incidental; Swanson’s organization Generations with Vision organized and sponsored the conference.15 Moreover, Swanson is listed as one of six “keynote speakers” for the conference, and, according to the schedule listed, he offered the introductory remarks, the “closing keynote,” and other talks—in addition to his interview with the three presidential candidates who attended (Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal joined Cruz there). It’s fair to say that Swanson hosted the conference and was its driving force.

At this very conference, Swanson said the following (you can watch the video of him):

Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. Yes, Romans, chapter one, verse thirty-two, the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words, not mine. And I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . . .

And I know, I’ve taken the counsel, many have told me this weekend, “You be careful. You choose your words carefully. We have presidentials coming down to this conference this weekend.” I understand that. But I am not ashamed of the truth of the word of God, and I’m willing to go to jail for it.

Then they ask me, “Yes, but do you advocate for our civil leaders to do this today?” And my answer is no. But why? Here’s why, because that’s not such a big deal. We are not to fear those who can kill the body. Yea, Jesus says, fear rather the one who can cast body and soul in hell forever.

The discussion concerning the capital punishment of homosexuals is nothing, is not all that important when contrasted with hellfire forever. You say, “Why wouldn’t you call for it?” I say it’s because we need some time for homosexuals to repent, that’s why.

He goes on to say that “there’s not much difference between adultery and homosexuality,” morally speaking; that he considers adultery to include “illegitimate” cases of divorce and remarriage; and that pornography is equally bad. He says (referring to others asking him the question), “Why don’t you call for it?”—with “it” referring to execution for “crimes” such as homosexuality. He answers, “America needs time to repent, of their homosexuality, of their adultery, and their porn addictions.”16

Quite obviously, here Swanson is calling for the future execution of unrepentant homosexuals by the state, after America has had “time to repent”—and only by the most fantastic act of evasion can a listener pretend that he said otherwise. He says that “civil leaders” should not execute homosexuals “today . . . because we need some time for homosexuals to repent” first. Then, after they (and the vast numbers of other “guilty” Americans) have had “time to repent,” government should execute unrepentant homosexuals (and apparently other “sinners” as well). That’s what Swanson clearly says and clearly means to say.

Notice the structure of Swanson’s argument. He claims that, today, American government should not execute homosexuals, because today American culture is too evil for that to happen. But, in the future, when America becomes morally virtuous (by his perverted religious understanding of the terms), then America will be ready to institute the death penalty for homosexuality.

Even those who pretend that Swanson did not really mean what he said still are left with the uncomfortable fact that the potential execution of homosexuals was a serious part of the discussion at this conference. The best-case scenario is that attendees seriously discussed whether government officials, in America, should execute homosexuals, and, if so, whether they should do so immediately or at some point in the future. That’s the sort of conference that Ted Cruz chose to attend and address as part of his political campaign for the presidency.

But did Cruz, despite the existence of the Internet, not know what he was getting into? Did he have no idea what sort of views Swanson espouses? No, Cruz knew exactly what sort of views Swanson espouses.

Before Cruz attended Swanson’s event, Cruz appeared on television with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Tapper said to Cruz:

You are speaking at a conference this weekend, the National Religious Liberties conference in Des Moines. It’s organized by a guy named Kevin Swanson. You’ve been very outspoken about what you deem liberal intolerance of Christians. But Kevin Swanson has said some very inflammatory things about gays and lesbians. He believes Christians should hold up signs at gay weddings, holding up the Leviticus verse, instructing the faithful to put gays to death because what they do is an “abomination.” I don’t hold you responsible for what other people say, but, given your concern about liberal intolerance, are you not in some ways endorsing conservative intolerance?

Cruz began his answer, “Listen, I don’t know what this gentleman has said or hasn’t said”—and then he proceeded to completely evade Tapper’s question.17 Even if Cruz was not aware of Swanson’s views prior to the interview with Tapper—which is wildly implausible—he certainly was aware of some of Swanson’s views prior to the conference, because Tapper told him about them. Cruz obviously was aware of Swanson’s views by the time of the conference and probably well before that (unless Cruz wishes to argue that he did not hear what Tapper said and that his campaign is run by idiots who do not watch his television interviews and do not know how to conduct simple Google searches).

Here is the most plausible interpretation of the facts: Swanson organized the event in question, Cruz knew that Swanson organized it, Cruz knew the sorts of views that Swanson espouses, and Cruz went to the event anyway in order to pander to the evangelical voters that Swanson attracts. Put bluntly, Cruz calculated that his political gain from rubbing shoulders with Swanson and his acolytes would outweigh the political damage of, well, rubbing shoulders with Swanson and his acolytes.

Incidentally, Swanson’s tirade about homosexuals was not the only lunacy on display at the conference. Another speaker at the event, a pastor, distributed literature calling for the death penalty for (you guessed it) homosexuals.18 Less horrific but also bizarre, another speaker explained how the Disney film Frozen encourages children to turn away from God and follow Satan.19 That’s just a taste. Given that Swanson’s organization planned the event, the fact that it attracted some of the most fanatical representatives of modern American Christianity (in addition to Swanson) should surprise no one.

Note that I am not claiming that Cruz agrees with Swanson; obviously he does not (because Swanson is a bloodthirty fanatic). What I am claiming is what is true: that Cruz intentionally sought an alliance with Swanson and with Swanson’s acolytes by attending and speaking at Swanson’s hate-filled event, even talking with Swanson on stage about religion in the context of Cruz’s political campaign. Is that not sufficiently damning?

It isn’t according to Cruz’s campaign spokesperson, Rick Tyler. In reply to Rachel Maddow, Tyler first claimed that Swanson’s remarks were “not explicit” enough to justify the concerns expressed (!), then claimed that Cruz should not be held “accountable for something he did not say nor believes.”20

But Tyler misses the point. Cruz should not be held accountable for what Swanson says; Cruz should be held accountable for actively allying himself with Swanson, considering what Swanson says. If that is not obvious to a man seeking to become president of the United States, it’s obvious that that man is unsuited to the position.

As Ted Cruz himself openly acknowledges, religious faith is a centerpiece of his campaign for the presidency. A major part of Cruz’s political strategy is to ally himself with evangelical leaders and voters—including the outright theocrats Troy Newman and Kevin Swanson. Anyone who takes seriously Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” must condemn Cruz for these tactics and alliances.



1. “Sen. Ted Cruz Objects to Democrats Attempt to Repeal Free Speech Protections,” Senator Ted Cruz, September 9, 2014,

2. “Senate Session, Part 2,” C-SPAN, September 24, 2013,

3. Asheesh Agarwal and John Delacourt, “What No One Seems to Know About Ted Cruz’s Past,” PJ Media, September 30, 2015, Ted Cruz’s campaign web site lists a number of other issues on which Cruz is friendly to freer markets; see “Jobs & Opportunity,” Ted Cruz 2016, (accessed November 30, 2015). By contrast, Cruz’s positions regarding immigration are decidedly protectionist in nature; see “Cruz Plan to Top Illegal Immigration Highlights,” Ted Cruz 2016, (accessed November 30, 2015).

4. See “Life, Marriage & Family,” Ted Cruz 2016, (accessed November 30, 2015); see also Peggy Fikac, “Ted Cruz Says Questions about Mourdock Rape Comment Are ‘An Unfortunate Distraction from the Issues that Matter,’” Chron, October 31, 2012, and Lisa Desjardins, “What Does Ted Cruz Believe? Where the Candidate Stands on 10 Issues,” PBS News Hour, July 1, 2015,

5. “Center for Creation Studies, Liberty University, (accessed November 30, 2015).

6. Ryan Teague Beckwith, “Transcript: Read Full Text of Sen. Ted Cruz’s Campaign Launch,” Time, March 23, 2015,

7. See, for example, Abby Livingston, “Cruz to South Carolina Evangelicals: I’m One of You,” Texas Tribune, November 16, 2015,

8. “Ted Cruz Announces Formation of National Prayer Team,” Ted Cruz 2016, November 19, 2015, (accessed November 30, 2015); “More than 200 Faith Leaders Endorse Ted Cruz for President,” Ted Cruz 2016, November 20, 2015, (accessed November 30, 2015).

9. See Craig Biddle, “Political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Properly Defined,” Objective Standard, June 26, 2012,

10. Linn Armstrong and Ari Armstrong, “The Saul Alinsky Connection: Obama’s Unprincipled Class Warfare Threatens the Nation,”, September 16, 2015,

11. “Troy Newman, Activist Behind Planned Parenthood Videos, Endorses Ted Cruz,” Ted Cruz 2016, November 19, 2015, (accessed November 30, 2015). Newman’s work with the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood is not at issue; in my view those videos raised some important questions about some of Planned Parenthood’s practices, leading to reforms within that organization.

12. Miranda Blue, “Anti-Planned Parenthood Activist Troy Newman’s Terrifying, Woman-Shaming, Apocalyptic Manifesto,” Right Wing Watch, September 14, 2015, Those who do not trust Right Wing Watch as a source should notice that the author of the piece obviously obtained a copy of the book in question and quoted directly from it. In any event, I have ordered my own copy of the book. Rachel Maddow also published a piece about Newman and Sullenger; see “Ted Cruz embraces religious radicals with violent message,” MSNBC, November 24, 2015,

13. “Operation Rescue’s Non-Violent History is a Matter of Public Record,” Operation Rescue, October 16, 2015,

14. “Execution of Paul Hill Nothing Less than Murder,” Operation Rescue West and California Life Coalition, September 3, 2003, archived at; this document lists Troy Newman as “Director, Operation Rescue West” and Cheryl Sullenger as “Director, California Life Coalition.”

15. See the web site for the conference at; see a page for Generations with Vision discussing the conference at; and see a page about Kevin Swanson’s role with Generations with Vision at

16. Miranda Blue, “Kevin Swanson: No Death Penalty For Gays . . . Until They Have Time To Repent,” Right Wing Watch, November 7, 2015, I’ve written about the conference in question before, but I wanted to offer more details in this piece; for the earlier pieces see Ari Armstrong, “Why I Will Vote for Any Democrat over Ted Cruz,”, November 25, 2015, and Ari Armstrong, “Voting, Political Activism, and Taking a Stand,”, November 25, 2015,

17. Curtis Houck, “Tapper to Cruz: Are You ‘Endorsing Conservative Intolerance’ by Attending Event with Activist Pastor,” Newsbusters, November 5, 2015, Regarding the signs that Kevin Swanson encourages his followers to hold at gay weddings, see Brian Tashman, “Swanson: Tell Gay Couples To Die On Their Wedding Day,” Right Wing Watch, September 5, 2015,

18. Brian Tashman, “‘Death Penalty For Gays’ Literature At Right-Wing Conference,” Right Wing Watch, November 6, 2015,

19. Brian Tashman, “GOP Confab Ends With Call To Execute Gays Who Don’t Repent, Send Queen Elsa Back To Hell,” Right Wing Watch, November 10, 2015,

20. “Rachel Maddow Show 11/26/2015,” November 26, 2015, Maddow, with whom I often disagree on political matters, has done some hard-hitting work regarding Cruz’s association with Troy Newman and Kevin Swanson, and she provided a number of leads for my research.

How You Can Stop Voting Naively and Start Voting Strategically

Some people are naive voters, their votes accomplish nothing, and, for them, voting is a complete waste of time. Many people are strategic voters at a gut level, but they don’t understand how their voting is strategic or how they might pursue more complex voting strategies. My goal here is to turn naive voters into strategic voters and to turn gut-level strategic voters into self-consciously strategic voters with greater political influence.

But why would I want to help make other voters, including my political opponents, more strategic in their voting? It’s not like I can publish my advice and hope that only my allies will read it. Aren’t I just encouraging both sides to up their games, resulting in no net gains? I think not.

A major problem with politics today is that egalitarian “eat the rich” primary voters largely drive the Democratic party, while theocratic primary voters largely drive the Republican party. That is, both parties are disproportionately driven by ideologies that most Americans do not share. I think that if more voters become more strategic, that will help diffuse political influence and improve both parties over time. Or so one can hope.

I’m writing this article  partly in response to feedback, much of it explosively angry, that I’ve received via email and social media regarding two of my recent articles about Ted Cruz.

Here’s the backstory in brief: I like many of Cruz’s policies and pronouncements, but I’m more than a little irritated with him for lurching hard toward theocratic conservatism. I’m so irritated over one particular incident (his dalliance with Kevin Swanson) that I declared I’ll vote for any Democrat over Cruz, unless Cruz apologizes.

Even though I wrote a follow-up piece explaining some of the reasoning behind my political strategy, various respondents continued to basically misunderstand what it is that I’m up to. A typical response amounted to (and I exaggerate only very slightly), “Oh my God! You mean you’d actually support the dastardly Marxist Islamofascist-loving Hillary Clinton, who will leave America in smoldering ashes, over the shining knight of reason and liberty Ted Cruz, who will lead America to renewed greatness? You are evil.”

I ruminated over how such respondents could be so dense as to totally misunderstand the nature and purpose of my political stance. Then it occurred to me: Such people have actually never thought seriously about political strategy, and they have no grasp of it. To the degree that they’re strategic voters, it’s by accident, not conscious design.

Obviously political strategy is an enormously complex topic, so here I want to narrow the discussion only to basic voting strategies. I want to discuss naive voting, which here I call “duty voting,” and five types of strategic voting.

Duty Voting

A naive voter looks at voting as a social duty. A duty voter will examine the candidates, pick a slate of candidates, quietly fill out the ballot, and consider the duty fulfilled—all without giving any thought to the impact of the vote.

A duty vote has no impact. Duty voting is a total waste of time, at least in the context of large-scale (national) elections in which one’s vote will almost certainly never impact the outcome of any election. (By contrast, individual votes actually have some realistic chance, however remote, of making a difference in very-competitive regional races.)

In all seriousness, duty voters would be better off staying home (or leaving their mailed ballots unopened) and doing something else. So let’s turn to the various types of strategic voting.

Social Pressure Voting

Most people, at some level, understand that their purpose in voting is not merely to cast a single ballot in a large-scale election. Rather, their purpose of voting is to mutually encourage their allies to vote, too, and thereby to achieve an outcome they favor. Such social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting.

To put the matter in terms of public choice economics, voting is “irrational” for the individual voter, because an individual vote will not sway the outcome of the election. However, if I and all of my allies sit home, and our opponents show up to vote, then we will all lose out. So voting becomes what the economists call a “free rider problem”—individual voters are tempted to free ride on the efforts of other voters, but, if all the voters of a given camp free ride, none of those voters get what they want. In these terms, social pressure voting is a way to overcome the free rider problem in voting.

As a matter of strategy, social pressure voting is very simple. It amounts basically to publicly making it known what political team you’re likely to support, publicly announcing that you’re going to vote, and suggesting that you might be irritated with those of your allies who don’t vote. This could be as simple has having a water-cooler discussion about the election or posting a remark on Facebook.

Social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting, and it’s important. It does not, however, exhaust the forms of strategic voting. Other forms of strategic voting can have even more impact in an election, for those who wish to pursue them.

Endorsement Voting

I suppose that the second-most common form of strategic voting is endorsement voting. Here the idea is that, not only do you encourage “your team” to go out and vote, you publicly articulate a case for voting for a particular candidate. This type of strategic voting often is more important during primaries, when many candidates with similar views vie for a chance to appear in the general election.

The purpose of endorsement voting, quite simply, is to try to persuade people sitting on the fence, whether they are other primary voters or swing voters in the general, to embrace your candidate of choice.

The public pronouncement is an essential element of endorsement voting. Whenever you promote a candidate on social media or among your friends, in the context of explaining your pending vote, you are practicing the strategy. Of course, you could endorse a candidate without voting at all, but the idea here is that, by endorsing a particular candidate and publicly declaring your intention to vote for that candidate, you help drum up support for the candidate in terms of voter turnout. (There are many other ways of supporting a candidate that I won’t discuss here.)

Lesser of Evils Voting

If you openly declare, “I’m voting for Candidate A over Candidate B, not because I like Candidate A but because I regard that candidate as somewhat less-bad than the other,” that is the essence of strategically voting for the lesser of evils.

Again, the public pronouncement is the key to this sort of strategy. Electorally, the outcome of actively endorsing a candidate, versus declaring you’re voting for the candidate only as the lesser of evils, is identical (and totally irrelevant, because your single vote doesn’t matter). The purpose is to put the candidate and that candidate’s party on notice that you’re not happy with your choices, and they better shape up in the future if they want your continued support.

NOTA Voting

Threatening to vote for “none of the above” (NOTA) rather than the candidate you’d normally be presumed to support is a very powerful political tool. Among Republicans, two groups routinely use this strategy to great effect: Religious conservatives and gun owners. Groups that advocate abortion bans routinely threaten candidates in this way. I’ve heard it plausibly argued that gun owners sitting home out of a sense of Republican betrayal has swung at least one presidential election (although Dave Kopel argues Bush the Elder still would have lost to Clinton, just not as badly).

The strategy of NOTA voting essentially communicates, “My candidate or party has betrayed me so badly that I’m willing to sit on the fence this cycle, even if the other candidate wins.” NOTA voting takes the long view: The goal is primarily to alter the course of one’s favored political party long term, not influence the current election.

Punishment Voting

NOTA voting is one method of punishing one’s candidate or party, but there’s an even more powerful method of punishment voting: Threatening to vote for the opposing candidate rather than merely not vote. If you want to call this the “nuclear option” of voting, that’s probably apt.

The electoral reasoning behind this is straight-forward. To create a simplified scenario, let’s assume there are one hundred voters in a particular race, and that the predicted outcome would be 52 votes for Candidate A and 48 votes for Candidate B. But then let’s say three of Candidate A’s supporters become very annoyed with something their candidate does or proposes. How do they get the candidate to shape up?

If they threaten merely not to vote, then Candidate A still wins, only by a narrower margin of 49 to 48. (Voting for a minor-party candidate yields the same numbers.) Candidate A, if he can predict this, might say, “I realize you three are angry, but so what? I’m still going to win, so screw you.” But if the three angry voters threaten to exercise the “nuclear option,” then Candidate A faces the real risk of losing the race by a margin of 49 to 51. What do you think Candidate A’s attitude will become with respect to those three voters, even though they constitute a tiny three percent of the electorate in this example? That’s pretty obvious.

Notice that punishment voting has nothing to do with “supporting” the opposing candidate, in the sense of expressing positive approval or moral sanction of that candidate. Punishment voting is essentially communicating to a candidate (and the candidate’s supporters), “Yes, I hate the opposing candidate, but I’m so pissed off at you over the matter at hand that I’m threatening to ‘go nuclear’ on your ass to try to get your attention.”

Punishment voting is an extreme and uncomfortable move, which is why most people never even consider it as a possibility, much less execute it. But I’m not most people, and I think that Cruz’s open pandering to theocratic conservatives completely merits the threat of punishment voting.

As with NOTA voting, punishment voting takes a long view. The idea is that, even if we (the punishers) end up throwing the upcoming election, we’re going to work toward the long-term improvement of our political candidates. Maybe a candidate we hate will win this time, but hopefully next time, and on into the future, we’ll get a candidate that we like.

Of course, there are two types of punishment voting, absolute and conditional. If you’re so upset with a candidate that there is no way that candidate could find redemption in your eyes, you might just want to announce a firm punishment vote. But if you still think there’s hope for your candidate, you might want to announce conditional punishment. That is, if the candidate shapes up, you will rescind your threat of voting for the opposing candidate. (At this point, that’s my position with respect to Cruz.)

I can understand if people want to criticize a threat of punishment voting in a given case: As noted, it’s an extreme move. But it does annoy me when people pretend that a punishment vote is something other than what it is. If you want to argue I’m wrong, great, but don’t be a complete idiot about it by ignoring the hard realities of strategic voting in our winner-take-all system.

At any rate, I sincerely hope that my allies, my critics, and my opponents all adopt more strategic voting, as I think that will make some headway toward improving the American political scene over time.


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

December 23 Update: See also “Gary Kleck and John Lott Offer Closing Thoughts in Dispute over Gun Research.”

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. December 23 Update: See also Kleck and Lott’s final replies (here) about these issues.

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.

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.