When Russian forces stormed the school held hostage by Chechen terrorists, over 300 people died. The Beslan school siege wasn’t the worst terrorist attack arithmetically – the fatalities were only a tenth of September 11th. What made the school siege particularly gruesome was that many who died, and died in the most gruesome manner, were children.
There’s something particularly distressing about kids being massacred, which can’t be quantified mathematically. You either get that point or you don’t. And the famed Chechen rebel, Shamil Basayev, got it. Issuing a statement after the attack Basayev claimed responsibility for the siege but called the deaths a “tragedy.” He did not think that the Russians would storm the school. Basayev expressed regret saying that he was “not delighted by what happened there.” Basayev was not known for contrition but death of children doesn’t look good even for someone whose modus operandi was in killing as many as possible.
There’s a code even amongst terrorists – you don’t slaughter children – it’s ok flying planes into big towers but not ok deliberately killing children. Of course, neither is ok but the point is that even the most immoral of our species have a moral code. Strict utilitarians won’t understand this moral code. Strict utilitarians, or rational amoralists, accord significance by multiplying the number of life years lost by the number died, and whether a death from medical error or of a child burnt in a school siege, the conversion factor is the same. Thus, for rational amoralists sentimentality specifically over children dying, such as in Parkland, Florida, in so far as this sentimentality affects policy, must be justified scientifically.
The debate over gun control is paralyzed by unsentimental utilitarianism but with an ironic twist – it is the conservatives, known to eschew utilitarianism, who seek refuge in it. After every mass killing, I receive three lines of reasoning from conservatives opposed to gun control: a) If you restrict guns there’ll be a net increase in crimes and deaths, b) there’s no evidence restricting access to guns will reduce mass shootings, and c) people will still get guns if they really wish to. This type of reasoning comes from the same people who oppose population health, and who deeply oppose the sacrifice of individuals for the greater good, i.e. oppose utilitarianism.
When the fetish of pro-gun conservatives for utilitarianism started I don’t know, but utilitarianism became sexy in the gun debate by the work of John Lott – an econometrician who showed that crime was lower in places which allowed adults to carry concealed weapons. Lott, who published a book with a catchy title: “More guns less crime,” would regularly surface on TV after a mass shooting, and with an affect of a rational amoralist – which is an indifference which comes from uncompromising deference to numbers – he would warn a bifid nation partly in mourning that gun control would lead to net harm.
Lott, a rational data-driven economist, transformed the debate over gun control. The gun debate no longer was just about constitutional law, but science. Suddenly, conservatives became deferent to data. The fight for gun control would no longer take place over sloppy sentimental musings, but over calculus and matrix algebra. I haven’t analyzed Lott’s econometric models which showed “more guns less crime.” But casual acquaintance with econometrics has lead me to conclude that any econometric model can be debunked with sufficient time, knowledge and will. And with even more will, the debunking can be debunked.
And Lott’s science was debunked – not by conservatives. I don’t know for sure the political theology of the debunkers of Lott, suffice to say that the debunking was widely covered in left-leaning publications. Lott responded to the debunking and defended his research. Unlike Chechen terrorists, the rational amoralists know no moral codes – only codes in Stata and SPSS. The gun debate was reduced to arguing about surrogates, missing variables and disputed codes on statistical software.
True to form the data-driven progressives, who are usually utilitarian to their core, have once again fallen for the utilitarian trap. They have hoped to inform policy on firearms by data, by numbers, what is called “rational policy.” It should be easy showing that restriction to guns reduces deaths by guns – this is naked common sense. But the science of gun control falls in the dominion of social sciences whose methods are inherently flawed, and whose flaws can selectively be exposed, the type of science that conservatives have an instinctual distrust of, unless it’s about gun control.
Even though utilitarianism, which is ultimately about numbers, should settle public debates, it doesn’t. This is partly because social sciences are too methodologically weak to settle anything. And partly because new lines of argument sprout. I’ll give you one example – pointing out that many gun-related deaths are suicides and that gun control ought to reduce the number of suicides, which is good in a utilitarian sense, should be a potent argument for gun control. But it’s not and actually weakens the argument for gun control, or leads to more arguing. Why so? Because then some clever clog says “duh, it’s not a gun issue but a mental health issue and the gun problem can’t be solved unless we solve the mental health problem. We need more psychiatrists, not fewer guns.”
The arguing continues. If the issue isn’t a mental health issue then it’s a family value problem – families no longer dine together, or a moral problem, or a problem of too few jobs, or a problem of lack of optimism, or of violent Hollywood movies – but never a problem of easy access to guns. Thus, gun control gets relegated by deeper societal root causes, real or imaginary, of gun deaths.
The emphasis on data has driven the anti-gun progressives off the moral thrust that they so badly need. The gun debate reaches depths of churlishness that is unprecedented in the public space. One example is the ban placed on the CDC from researching about guns. I’m not sure what’s more absurd – the ban or the reaction to the ban. But it feeds well into the utilitarian fallacy that only if we had more and better data we could employ the right policy to reduce mass killings.
After every mass killing there’s an editorial bemoaning the ban on the CDC, as if were it for CDC’s ability to research gun violence we’d have gun control. This is a typical fallacy in which the rationalist fails to appreciate that the quest for fine policy merely defers the enactment of blunt policy, without delivering the finer policy.
The utilitarian mindset leads to technocratic solutions which are prescriptively useless. Another one in this genre is “guns are a public health issue.” The logic for making guns a public health issue is taut – guns lead to death and disability. But the logic of involving physicians in the gun debate is less clear. If you’re not moved by the chilling voices of children screaming in Parkland as the assailant shot with reptilian indifference you’re hardly going to be moved by somber-looking physicians proclaiming “gun control leads to better health,” pointing to some UN charter on health to make their point.
Another absurdity was a law, now struck down, in Florida which prohibited doctors from questioning patients about gun safety. The law was idiotic but what is also absurd, though not as idiotic as the law, is an MD-MPH pediatrician trained in the Acela corridor quizzing a gun enthusiast from flyover country about gun safety. The trouble with involving doctors in the gun debate is that they’ll view shootings as a safety problem – the Parkland massacre didn’t happen because the Parkland murderer hadn’t attended a gun safety seminar.
Making gun control scientific leads to a paralyzing granularity and gun advocates, who generally know more about firearms than the gun control brigade, play granularity to their advantage. If you ever propose gun control, the pro-gun brigade will instantly ask “so, what’s your solution?” and then relentlessly quiz you on your proposed solution. Here’s an example of the argument you can get into:
Ban semi-automatics – people can still get Glocks. Ban large guns – actually large guns can’t be concealed, you’re better off banning small guns. Ban small guns – Second Amendment. Restrict access to AR-15 – there are other guns. Restrict access to other guns – good luck confiscating guns. But it’s not the guns per se, but the size of magazines. But it’s not a gun issue but a mental health issue, etc, etc, etc.
The non-scientific arguments against gun control are at least dressed in some scholarship, the most potent being the rationale behind the Second Amendment, which one understands with historical context. But history is history, and though one must pay heed to George Santayana’s advice that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it’s also important not overplaying history. The value of a “well-armed” militia in keeping a free state was no doubt important when it was not clear if King George would return with the British Armada, but it’s unlikely that Charles or William, and least of all Harry, have any intentions in recapturing Fort McHenry.
The idea that the Second Amendment keeps the government at bay is romantic and plays well with constitutional purists. But guns are hardly keeping the government at bay – Americans are progressively getting more and more regulated despite “well-armed militias.” And then there’s Facebook – a de facto digital surveillance state which even the Stasi would have envied. The importance of guns for the citizen militia cannot be more forthrightly diminished than was by the passengers on hijacked United Flight 93, who on September 11th saved the White House by taking the control of the plane from the terrorists – none of the passengers had an AR-15 with them.
Guns are incidental to the American economic system, though a contrived and shaky trajectory tries to link freedom, free market and the Second Amendment. It’s as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand is perennially trigger happy. How such muddy thinking rose to the surface is bewildering. I suspect the error here is the juxtaposition of two beliefs – that markets work best with minimum government intrusion, arguably correct, and that the Second Amendment is what minimizes government intrusion, unarguably absurd.
But the Second Amendment is not absolute, any more than the First Amendment – the right to bear arms isn’t the right to a personal rocket launcher – so really we’re quibbling about the price not principle, and if people recognize the limitations of the First Amendment, both in the letter and spirit of the law, what’s so complex in recognizing the limitations of the Second Amendment? Why is restriction to guns so objectionable to conservatives? How does restricting access to AR-15 violate the Second Amendment? Why do the same activists, who rally energetically against Obamacare without worrying whether their alternatives are really solutions (they’re not, BTW), suddenly become mute after mass killings? How is it when it comes to gun control the conservatives are suddenly incontinent with “nuance”?
A common logic advanced by conservatives explaining why they are against gun control is that if you trade freedom for security you get neither freedom nor security. I like this rationale. But if conservatives are so worried about this lose-lose trade why did they not object to the personal intrusions for the sake of security after September 11th? The Patriot Act affected ordinary Americans, too, not just aspiring terrorists. Where are the calls for freedom over security when airports make travel unpleasant for all?
Another rationale is that restricting access to guns won’t abolish mass killings. Of course, it won’t. Antibiotics for meningitis don’t reduce the death toll from meningitis to zero. If we stopped all interventions which only reduced the outcome probabilistically, not with certainty, medicine would grind to a halt.
Another stonewalling technique when one proposes restricting access to guns is what should be done with those who already have the restricted, or banned, guns. “Good luck confiscating guns,” the clever clog will smugly challenge. But anyone who understands the difference between prevalence (existing cases of a disease) and incidence (new cases of a disease) will recognize a sophomoric flaw in such logic. Sure – gun restriction won’t reduce the access to existing firearms to zero, nor should it, but it’ll make it a tad more difficult getting access to new firearms.
Still another rationale is that there’s no evidence that restricting access to guns will reduce the frequency of mass killings. This logic is usually advanced by born-again-empiricists on the right, the same ones who deride deference to data over common sense in other domains. I doubt a randomized controlled trial is practical in this realm. But there’s some epistemic confusion here. Policy doesn’t operate on science – yes, I know it should but it can’t – policy operates on will. There was no evidence that invading Afghanistan, or capturing Osama Bin Laden, would have improved long term outcomes, or was cost effective, or had a high probability of success, but those interventions were still deemed necessary.
There’s a chance that the policy will work and a chance it won’t – and no one has the information to know whether any policy will succeed. The reason for enacting policy is if you believe the situation is dire enough to merit it. I think the mass killings in general, and killing of school children in particular, in the US merits urgent policy, and debating which is the best policy only stalls decision making.
The most specious argument against gun control is “guns don’t kill, people kill.” This cute aphorism, emphasizing that people not guns have moral agency, misses the point which is that all things being equal, ceteris paribus, restricting access to guns could reduce the chances that people will kill using guns which don’t kill. I’m amazed that the same people who advance this logic in the very next breath blame clunky EHRs for medical errors. Perhaps I should say – doctors, not EHRs, go to medical school but then you’d flag me for catastrophically missing the point.
A proposed alternative to gun control in protecting school children from gun attacks is abolishing the “gun free zones” that schools have and in equipping every school with armed guards. Leaving aside the costs of this venture, and the fact that it’d make the country literally a banana republic, this would be parody if it wasn’t about such a tragedy. The irony of requiring the military to protect children because citizens have easy access to guns to protect themselves from government, is depressing.
The choice seems clear though – arm all or disarm some. To be fair passing gun control laws isn’t easy. Partly, this is because the National Rifle Association has become a convenient bogey man and like the Koch Brothers are now folklore – evil forces who manipulate the politicians like puppets. The citizens rarely ask whether they are simply a convenient excuse for lily-livered politicians to do nothing. The Democrats achieved jack $hit in terms of gun control when they commanded DC a few years ago.
The progressives have not advocated smartly for gun control. The obsession over the 45th President’s Russian connections isn’t helpful. Nor does calling the current regime “Nazis” make a logical case for restricting access to guns. The best hope for gun control lies with President Trump. It’s probably not a good idea calling this thin-skinned president names if you want gun control.
After the Beslan school siege Basayev’s colleague, Aslan Maskhadov, distanced himself, calling the attack a “blasphemy.” Maskhadov recognized, amongst other things, that one sure way of losing support for his cause is by killing children. The episode was a turning point in Russian history. Putin’s power increased and the Chechen struggle became just that tad more unimportant.
The Parkland shooter wasn’t killing kids for political reasons. But Maskhadov would instantly have seen what American conservatives seem unable to see. That children being massacred doesn’t look good for a nation. Massacre of kids tears the nation’s psyche. The case for restricting access to guns isn’t a utilitarian case about net deaths. Its enactment doesn’t depend on data. It’s a policy and like all policies it is heavily drenched in faith and spurred by the exigencies of the moment. Its rationale is based on common sense – tightening access to certain types of guns might, just “might,” reduce frequency of mass killing of kids – “might” might not be right but “might” is good enough.
About the author
Saurabh Jha is a contributing editor to THCB and can be reached @RogueRad