Please see the new home for this podcast episode on Substack.
Sensible gun laws will not be achieved by demonizing peaceable gun owners or by ignoring the realities of gun use (including defensive use) and gun laws. Some possible changes in gun laws are worthy of reasoned discussion.
Some people who believe that changes in American gun laws would save lives seem to think that somehow it will help to demonize the millions of peaceable (and voting) Americans who own guns or who are members of the National Rifle Association. This is despite the fact that many gun owners favor certain changes to gun laws and that many have good reasons to oppose certain changes.
Is the goal to gin up partisan rage for the 2018 elections or to actually achieve the most sensible set of laws? Continue reading “Reflections on American Gun Laws”
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. Continue reading “Gary Kleck and John Lott Offer Closing Thoughts in Dispute over Gun Research”
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.
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.
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 offers a wide-ranging discussion of gun ownership, defensive gun use, sources of crime, drug-war violence, substitution of suicide methods, and more.
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
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.
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.
- John Lott Defends “More Guns, Less Crime” Thesis
- Gary Kleck and John Lott Offer Closing Thoughts in Dispute over Gun Research
- Michael Shermer’s Bogus Claims about Defensive Gun Use: Why the “22 Times” Statistic Is Nonsense
- Unarmed Civilian Response to Active Shooters: A Crucial Part of Reducing Casualties of Mass Attacks
Michael Shermer claims “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.” But this claim is complete nonsense. The study ignores the large majority of defensive gun uses, and Shermer draws unwarranted conclusions about the typical gun owner.
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.
- Unarmed Civilian Response to Active Shooters: A Crucial Part of Reducing Casualties of Mass Attacks
- History of Colorado’s Gun Magazine Ban
1. Michael Shermer, “Guns in the U.S.: We’re Better at Killing Americans than our Enemies Are,” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1008-shermer-gun-data-20151006-story.html.
2. Michael Shermer, “A Rational Response to Sandy Hook,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/15/opinion/la-oe-shermer-gun-control-20130115.
3. See the relevant Tweets by Michael Shermer and me of January 15, 2013, at https://twitter.com/ariarmstrong/status/291092694556614656.
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 https://twitter.com/michaelshermer/status/651053455616819200.
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.
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.
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, http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/lindsey-graham-ben-carson-comments-oregon/2015/10/07/id/695171/.
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 https://www.actcert.com/instructors.aspx. 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, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/ben-carson-on-evolution-an-ignorant-or-duplicitous-presidential-candidate/. For my critique of Carson’s remarks about Islam, see “Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views,” AriArmstrong.com, September 21, 2015, http://ariarmstrong.com/2015/09/ben-carsons-grain-of-truth-voters-should-care-about-candidates-religious-views/. For one account of Carson’s “gaffes,” see “To Ben Carson’s Fans, those ‘Gaffes’ Aren’t Gaffes,” Daily Kos, May 16, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/05/16/1385049/-To-Ben-Carson-s-fans-those-gaffes-aren-t-gaffes.
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, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/ben-carson-appears-guessing-oregon-shooting-victims/story?id=34310265.
6. Alexandra Jaffe and Andrew Rafferty, “Ben Carson Says People Should Attack Active Shooters,” NBC News, October 7, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/carson-loss-gun-rights-more-devastating-bullet-wounds-n439251.
7. See, for example, Ashley Fantz, “NRA clarifies its stance on arming schools,” CNN, December 27, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/27/us/nra-president-interview/.
8. Jordan Fabian, “Obama: Mass Shootings Are ‘Something We Should Politicize,’” The Hill, October 1, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/255723-obama-mass-shootings-should-be-politicized.
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, http://thefederalist.com/2015/06/18/actually-president-obama-mass-killings-arent-uncommon-in-other-countries/. 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, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/17/9340679/mass-shooting-fear.
11. “Surviving an Active Shooter,” March 17, 2015, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=6&v=DFQ-oxhdFjE; “Crisis on Campus: Shots Fired,” August 20, 2013, New York State University Police, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNzYNhySD_8; “Surviving an Active Shooter Event—Civilian Response to Active Shooter,” February 10, 2015, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=j0It68YxLQQ; “Run, Hide Fight: Surviving an Active Shooter Event—English,” July 23, 2012, City of Houston, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VcSwejU2D0; “Last Resort Active Shooter Survival Measures by Alon Stivi,” June 18, 2010, Attack Countermeasures Training, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2tIeRUbRHw. I found several of these videos through links provided by Randall Holcombe, “Be Prepared for Active Shooter Threats,” September 22, 2015, Independent Institute, http://blog.independent.org/2015/09/22/be-prepared-for-active-shooter-threats/.
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, http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/09/15/ooda-loop/.
13. See Bryan Register’s Tweets of October 7, 2015, at https://twitter.com/RegisterBryan/status/651905208214155264.
14. “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” September 16, 2013, Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents/pdfs/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-between-2000-and-2013.
15. Patrick Anderson, “Heroes emerge from shooting at Harrisburg High School,” October 1, 2015, Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/crime/2015/09/30/shots-fired-harrisburg-high-all-students-safe-principal-wounded/73085090/.
16. Sebastian Murdock, “Hero Teacher Brady Olson Stops High School Shooter In Washington State,” Huffington Post Crime, April 28, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/27/teacher-brady-olson-shooter_n_7154554.html.
17. “Suspect in France Train Shooting Watched Jihadi Video Prior to Attack, French Authorities Say, August 25, 2015, Associated Press, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/08/25/french-authorities-launch-terror-probe-in-train-attack-says-suspect-watched/.
18. “2015 Thalys Train Attack,” Wikimedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Thalys_train_attack (accessed October 7, 2015).
19. Don Melvin, “Oregon Shooting Hero Tells Gunman, ‘It’s My Son’s Birthday Today,’” October 3, 2015, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-school-shooting-hero/.
20. Neal Karlinsky, Sabina Ghebremedhin, and Cassidy Gard, “Oregon Umpqua Shooting Survivor Recalls Terrifying Moments Inside Classroom,” October 5, 2015, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/oregon-umpqua-shooting-survivor-recalls-terrifying-moments-inside/story?id=34249478.
If you’re a gun-rights activist, is it better to have a law that restricts gun magazines to fifteen rounds or to thirty rounds? The answer might seem obvious: Laws that violate rights less are less-bad than laws that violate rights more. So of course Rocky Mountain Gun Owners opposed a recent attempt to ease Colorado’s magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds—waging a nasty smear campaign along the way.
In 2013, House Bill 1224 banned “the transfer of gun magazines holding more than 15 rounds,” as I reviewed that year.
This year, various Colorado Republican legislators attempted to repeal the magazine restrictions. An April 15 email from the National Rifle Association summarizes: “SB [Senate Bill] 175, introduced by state Senators Chris Holbert (R-30) and John Cooke (R-13), would have repealed [the] anti-gun piece of legislation passed into law during the 2013 legislative session that arbitrarily limits the number of rounds of ammunition you can use to protect yourself and your family to 15.” (People can keep the larger magazines they already own but not legally acquire new ones in the state.) A house committee killed that bill on April 15.
No serious person actually thought the Democrat-controlled state house would repeal the magazine restrictions; the purpose of the legislation was to keep up awareness of the issue.
However, there was an outside chance that Democrats might support a measure to ease the magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds; apparently Democrat Joe Salazar indicated he would. [April 20 Update: Salazar suggested this in a video with Revealing Politics.] The idea was for some legislator to run a late bill on the matter. Jon Caldara and Dave Kopel, president and research director (respectively) for the Independence Institute (II), supported that proposal. Dudley Brown and his Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) opposed it. The proposal seems to be dead at this point.
I don’t think there was much chance of such a measure passing. (I contacted Salazar via email and voice mail to ask him about the proposal, but I haven’t heard back from him.) However, it was perfectly reasonable for gun-rights activists to pursue such a proposal. But RMGO doesn’t do reasonable. It does smear.
On April 13, RMGO published a Facebook post calling the thirty-round proposal the “Kopel Kompromise.” The post continued, “Does Michael Bloomberg have a sleeper cell in Colorado? All of a sudden David Kopel is fighting as hard as he can to save the Magazine Ban by gutting SB15-175, the repeal bill. Maybe its because he’s a ‘lifelong registered Democrat’ and a ‘Ralph Nader’ voter.”
Kopel is one of the most important Second Amendment scholars in the world and an outspoken critic of Bloomberg’s gun-restriction proposals. RMGO’s insinuation that he’s somehow secretly and intentionally working to promote Bloomberg’s agenda is a slanderous lie.
It is also flatly untrue that Kopel wanted to “gut” bill 175; I’ll get to the pertinent details momentarily.
RMGO claims on Facebook (in a comment) that the II “started it”—because apparently you’re never too old for kindergarten. RMGO claims that posting the message about Kopel is “[o]nly returning the favor. Caldara (and by extension, Kopel) started it by claiming we were working with Bloomberg.” I doubt very seriously that Caldara publicly claimed that RMGO is “working with Bloomberg.” (It would be wrong and foolish to say such a thing.) Caldara has claimed, and rightly so, that RMGO is in effect furthering Bloomberg’s agenda by undercutting the effort to ease the restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds. Regardless of what Caldara said about RMGO, RMGO was quite wrong to smear Kopel.
RMGO also stated in a Facebook post targeting Caldara: “Anti-gun State Rep. Joe Salazar is floating a so-called ‘compromise’ proposal that’ll virtually guarantee Bloomberg’s Magazine Ban will be PERMANENT and unrepealable. Worse, establishment lobbyists like Jon Caldara are backing it by attacking RMGO members and supporters. Please . . . urge lawmakers to oppose the Salazar-Caldara ‘Permanent Magazine Ban Amendment.’ Insist they pass SB15-175 without amendment and repeal the Mag Ban in its entirety.”
RMGO’s claims about the politics of the proposals are implausible, as I’ll explain later. (Notice that RMGO neglected to point out the nature of the “compromise” in question.) For now consider merely what the legislative proposal was.
I’ve communicated with Kopel and Caldara by email, and with Holbert by phone, and they agree that amending 175 was never on the table; the plan was for a late bill. Caldara states, “Dudley was trying to confuse the issue saying that we wanted to change SB-175, which couldn’t be changed that way even if we want to. We want the Senate Republicans to pass a change to the current mag ban from 15 to 30 in a brand new late bill. Dudley won’t allow his followers to vote for that. He and Bloomberg don’t want Coloradans to have 30 rounds mags.”
As Holbert told me by phone (and as he’s also said on Facebook), there never was a late bill to ease the magazine restrictions. He said, “It’s frustrating for me that people have been drawing lines and taking sides on something that wasn’t real.” He granted that a late bill was a theoretical possibility; however, he said he’s heard from leadership that they don’t want late bills. (It’s unclear whether Salazar would have seriously supported any magazine bill.) Interestingly, senate president Bill Cadman just introduced a late bill regarding fetal homicide, so evidently late bills are not totally off the table.
I asked Holbert if he would vote for easing the restrictions to 30 rounds, and he said no. It’s hard to see why anyone would run the bill, knowing that RMGO’s own favored legislators would torpedo it. So it seems to me that Holbert wants it both ways: He wants to say that voting on the proposal was never a real possibility, but he actively discouraged it from becoming a real possibility by declaring he’d oppose it.
Holbert echoed RMGO’s position, that a “compromise” measure would make it “all but impossible to repeal [the ban] if the numbers moved to thirty.”
That claim, that easing the restrictions now would make repealing them later impossible, is frankly silly. The only way the magazine restrictions will be repealed is if the Republicans recapture both sides of the legislature and probably the governor’s mansion as well. It’s not enough to pull some Democrats over from a Democrat-controlled body, because leadership can kill any bill it wants. If Republicans were to regain control of state government across the board—by the way, something that’s extremely unlikely into the foreseeable future—then it would be just as easy for Republicans to repeal a thirty-round law as a fifteen-round law. Indeed, in some ways it would be easier to repeal a thirty-round law, because the marginal change from that to an outright repeal would be less dramatic.
So, if your goal is to ultimately repeal the magazine ban, passing a marginal reform now would be the best move toward that goal. (If, on the other hand, your goal is to keep your members angry and writing checks, RMGO’s strategy may make more sense.)
[April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett send me an email in which he states that, if easing the magazine restrictions to thirty rounds “was doable, then we would never get a full magazine ban repeal because there would be no political will to do so even on the Republican side. Trust me, I serve with these people.” I don’t buy it.]
The underlying substantive issue is whether any sort of political compromise or piecemeal reform is appropriate. The view expressed by Holbert and RMGO, that easing a rights-violating law is wrong because it makes repealing the law harder, is frankly insane, and no rational person would attempt to treat the principle as a universal. Not even Dudley Brown would attempt to do so.
Take the example of background-registration checks. In 2000 I worked with Brown to oppose Amendment 22, the measure (which passed) to extend registration checks to private sales at gun shows. In 2013, Colorado government passed House Bill 1229 to expand registration checks to almost all gun sales. Would Brown argue that it would be wrong to repeal Bill 1229 or Amendment 22, on the grounds that doing so would not totally repeal background-registration checks? Obviously not. Brown would do exactly what he blasts Kopel for trying to do: seek piecemeal reform.
Or consider the example of taxation. I think taxation is wrong and ultimately should be replaced by voluntary financing of government. But obviously I’m not going to torpedo any effort to marginally reduce tax rates and government spending, on the pretext that doing so would make taxes harder to repeal; that would be insane.
By Brown’s “logic,” voting for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was wrong because it still allowed increases in government spending.
By Brown’s “logic,” any effort to ease regulations on businesses should be opposed, so long as any regulations remain.
By Brown’s “logic,” Lincoln should be condemned for his Emancipation Proclamation on the grounds that it did not totally end slavery.
Brown’s position regarding magazine restrictions is essentially that he wants the law to be as rights-violating and damaging as possible, so that people are motivated to repeal it. By that “logic,” if the restrictions were set at five rounds, he’d oppose easing them to fifteen. If magazines were totally banned, he’d oppose legalizing any gun magazines if they were restricted in any way.
Usually I’m the first to quote Ayn Rand’s remarks about compromise, and I agree with them. But it is no compromise of principles to accept an incremental reform on the path to consistently good policy. To hold otherwise is to deny any possibility for incremental improvements.
I should mention that I know both Brown and Kopel personally; I’m probably the only person in the world to have worked (on contract and at different times) for both RMGO and the II. I first met Brown in 1998. I’ve always admired Brown’s talents as a political operative, and on a personal level I’ve generally found him to be an amiable guy. But in this case he’s sacrificed gun rights for the sake of smearing Kopel, whom he has long disliked. It would be pleasant if Brown would refrain from being a vindictive and hypocritical jerk. I won’t hold my breath.
“Yesterday incumbent Sheriff David Clarke, of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, won the Democratic primary, 52-48%,” David Kopel reports for the Washington Post. “Mayor of Everywhere” Michael Bloomberg poured $150,000 dollars into the campaign to unseat Clarke. Why? Because Bloomberg hates guns and wants a disarmed populace, and (as Kopel reports) “Sheriff Clarke has urged Milwaukee citizens to arm themselves for lawful self-defense.”