I am pleased that the gun debate continues in the United States. I am saddened that it takes the killing of children in school to reignite it from time to time, and wish it would continue without any tragic events. I think we’re making a fundamental mistake in the approach though, much like the mistake many make when talking about curing cancer. There is not one cancer, there are many cancers. An effective treatment for one type of cancer may have no effect on another. Likewise, there are many issues related to gun safety, and what might prevent injury or deaths caused by one of those issues could be quite different from what is needed to prevent harm from another. But when somebody proposes something that might help one cause, it is dismissed because it won’t help all causes, so we end up talking past each other. I think recognizing that is an important step forward.
The debate about guns heats up after a tragedy like Sandy Hook or Parkland, but the majority of gun deaths are suicides. When we talk about how many people die because of guns, we lump all deaths together, and often do not separate that most of these are self-inflicted. It’s not hard to imagine that our approach to preventing suicide might be quite different from our approach to stopping an angry kid from shooting up his school. On the other hand, many mass shootings seem to be suicides in the sense that the shooter often does not expect, or even want, to get out of the event alive. What is clear, however, is that if we look at things on a state by state basis, states with more guns have higher suicide rates. This correlation has many possible causes, but an obvious one is that guns make suicide easier. So the more guns there are around, the easier it is to get one, and that makes suicide easier. To be honest, I don’t know if the government has a role in stopping people from taking their own lives, but that’s a much deeper question to grapple with, so for now I’m putting it away and taking the clear side that the government should NOT make suicide easier, and clearly allowing easy access to guns does that.
Still, the arguments that have been coming from those who fight against gun restrictions have infuriated me recently. A video of Nicholas Freitas, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has been spread by a bunch of people on social media, and many see this as a great argument about what the “real” problem is when it comes to guns: abortion, gun-free zones, and everything other than the large number of guns we have in this country. Here’s the video, let’s take some of these points on.
Freitas says he wants an open and honest debate, and talks about evidence, facts, reason, logic…but his argument is far from logical, and flies in the face of lex parsimoniae (Occam’s razor). This is the principle that when considering competing explanations, the most simple is usually correct, and the most simple should be held as the correct answer unless evidence finds otherwise. Here, we have a far more simple answer, but Freitas ignores it to reach for the more complicated answers. That’s not following evidence, facts, reason, or logic. In fact, we are missing lots of evidence, facts, reason, and logic since the Dickey Amendment of 1996. A bit of a tangent here, but this is the action of the Federal Government that prohibited research by the CDC that looked at guns as a health issue. It came on the heels of a 1993 study that showed that having a gun in the home increased the rick of homicide in that same home. Granted, this is a complicated idea, and there are lots of other factors that could contribute to the risk, but the NRA and republicans in Congress moved to bar that kind of research, at least in the hands of the CDC. So, anybody, including Freitas, who claims to want a debate based on facts and evidence, needs to first call for the repeal of the Dickey Amendment. Maybe that’s where Freitas should start. But he doesn’t start there, where does he go next? Gun-free zones.
Gun-free zones. That’s been the line from many lately. Gun-free zones are attacked because they’re “soft targets.” Again, think about the idea of parsimony. There is nothing in these stories, nothing that the shooters said or wrote, that made any reference to the target being selected because it was a gun-free zone. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t selected for that reason, but why are the people making that argument ignoring what we actually know? We know that the shooter was expelled from Stoneman Douglass. We know that he also talked about shooting police and anti-fascist protesters. He said, “I wanna die Fighting killing s**t ton of people.” There’s nothing about schools being soft targets. Again that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t part of his thinking, but if he wanted to die fighting, a soft target doesn’t seem like the ideal choice. Part of the problem here is that people are assigning rational thinking. This, in some ways, reflects the lack of empathy. I’ve written about the distinction between empathy and sympathy before, and this feels along those lines to me: sympathy being putting myself in your shoes, empathy being imagining being you in your shoes. I’ve often suspected that the lack of the ability to step from sympathy to empathy is at least partly responsible for the partisan divide in the country.
In any respect, one way of asking if gun-free zones are the cause is by looking at other countries. Other countries have lower rates of gun deaths (both suicide and homicide), and have plenty of gun-free zones. Schools are gun-free in other countries; many countries are gun free. Why aren’t those “soft targets” attacked more?
Where does he go next? “Broken homes” (with a nice swipe at abortion as the cause of broken homes). Well, divorce rates are high in the United States (around 53%), but they’re above 60% in Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Belgium has the highest rate at 70%. Does that at all correlate with gun deaths? Nope. Not at all. For those saying that correlation isn’t causation (because you heard that somewhere before), please know that there’s some truth to that: correlations are not proof of causation. But, any variables that are causally related to each other ARE correlated. So lack of correlation DOES show evidence of a lack of a causation.
What’s next? A claim that strict gun-control measures don’t work, citing American cities. This is a consistent talking point, but ignores the fact that there is no border security between those regions. A strict gun law in Chicago doesn’t have a chance of being maximally effective if you can drive 20 miles away and buy legal guns. The real question would be, all things equal, is the gun death rate lower or higher with or without those laws. We can’t do that experiment, but we can, again, look at a country by country comparison, and countries with more strict gun laws, and therefore fewer guns, have fewer gun deaths. That is an indisputable fact.
Without going through the rest, point-by-point, let’s try to pretend that this isn’t about guns, or the cultural identity of people who own guns. Let’s make this about smoking and lung cancer rates. Let’s add some untrue “facts” to make the analogy fit:
The first untrue “fact” for this exercise: America has the highest lung cancer rate in the world
The second untrue “fact”: America has the highest smoking rates in the world.
The third (actually true) “fact”: there are decades of evidence that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer.
With those three things together, the clear and parsimonious explanation is that we have the highest rates of lung cancer because we have the highest rates of smoking. We would endlessly mock the stupidity of those who tried to say that other causes were really responsible. We would laugh at people who said we had higher rates of cancer because we had smoke-free restaurants. We would probably ignore anybody who said it was because we had more “broken homes.” We wouldn’t give any credit to people who said that the rate of lung cancer was because of mental illness, and not high rates of smoking. We would dismiss those because there’s a very good, parsimonious explanation right in front of us that hasn’t yet been dismissed. Why would we look for more complicated answers when the most simple holds up? We wouldn’t. But we do when it comes to guns. By the way, the tobacco industry did when it came to smoking too, but now they have to pay for ads trying to prevent smoking. Maybe the same will happen to the gun industry someday also. Maybe.