Tag Archives: gun control

What the Immigration and Gun Control Debates Have in Common

President Trump is poised to issue a new executive order on immigration this week. It’s likely to be less sweeping than the initial ban so it has a better chance at passing legal muster. It will be implemented in the name of national security, but it will likely be based on the same dubious premise as before–that the people being barred, who are mostly Muslim, pose a significant threat to Americans, even if the evidence does not support this.

Continue reading What the Immigration and Gun Control Debates Have in Common

Privilege and Gun Control

It’s no secret that the gun control debate is filled with omissions and non-sequiturs. Both sides do it, and it’s not especially charming in either case. Indeed, depending on the particular individuals involved, the whole argument can often be fruitfully summarized as one side yelling Australia! while the other is yelling Chicago! Politically, the issue seems likely to end in a stalemate, given that we find ourselves in an election year. Nevertheless, the debate elsewhere will continue to dominate our social media feeds until a more significant crisis unseats it.

Given these circumstances, today our purpose is to take aim at one of the most important omissions in the gun control debate, namely how privilege shapes its priorities.

To this end, we recommend an intriguing new article at the Mises Institute written by Tate Fegley. As we’ve discussed previously, gun control advocates often use very broad measures of gun-related violence such as total gun deaths (which includes suicides). However, the article points out that the proposed gun control solutions are really geared towards only a very small subset of the overall gun violence–the mass shooting attacks that have regularly captured headlines over the past year. Fegley offers some stark statistics to make this point:

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,less than one percent of all homicides each year in the U.S. are from shootings where 3 or more are killed. And between 1993 and 2011, 70 to 80 percent of firearm homicides (and 90 percent of nonfatal victimizations) were committed with a handgun, not a scary-looking assault rifle.

Most gun violence actually occurs in far less sensational ways. And given the general link between poverty and crime, it’s also fair to say that much of this less-publicized violence is likely occurring in poorer communities.

Taking these facts together, the relevant question is why the gun control debate prioritizes mass shootings over the more substantial causes of violence. Surely part of the answer is emotional and part is probably a political desire not to let a crisis go to waste, as they say. However, Fegley suggests, convincingly, that privilege offers part of the explanation as well:

Few of the politicians, celebrities, or media personalities advocating further gun restrictions live in a dangerous neighborhood. Many of them can afford to live in a gated community and hire personal private security, or have such security provided to them at taxpayers’ expense. They are able to drive, not walk, through dangerous areas, if not avoid them entirely.

As such, they have little to lose in terms of safety if further restrictions on private gun ownership are implemented. The types of gun violence they are most concerned about are rare events occurring in places where middle and upper class people can imagine themselves: places like college campuses, night clubs, and movie theaters — not the inner-city. Despite railing against the racism of police that people in poor communities face, they tend to give no thought to how these individuals, who do not enjoy the same level or quality of police protection that they do, will protect themselves.

Whatever your preferred solution for the gun control argument is, Fegley’s insight is a valuable one. Many of us are fortunate enough to live in circumstances where we are able to basically take our personal security for granted. I am certainly one of them; I don’t own a gun for personal protection, and I wouldn’t know the first thing about using it if I did. That said, we should acknowledge that this is a privilege that some Americans do not enjoy, and the priorities in the gun control debate ultimately reflect this privilege. They are not designed to address gun violence writ large; they are designed to address the (exceedingly rare) circumstances where people who normally feel secure could come under attack.

Recognizing this privilege doesn’t automatically mean those proposals are a bad idea. But it does suggest that we need to consider the possible unintended consequences these laws could have on people that do not share the privilege of feeling secure in their day-to-day lives.

The Connection Between Police Brutality, the War on Drugs, and Gun Control

The War on Drugs has claimed another innocent family among its victims. Fortunately, no one died in this latest episode. But an 18-year-old teenager has been arrested and charged with attempted murder for actions that any reasonable person should view as self-defense. Here’s what happened.

In April, a SWAT team from the Austin Police Department raided the house of teenager Tyler Harrell and his parents. The raid took place before 6 a.m. in the morning and proceeded in a typical shock-and-awe fashion. Police officers breached the door and threw flash-bang grenades into the house with the intent of disorienting the occupants. Meanwhile, a loudspeaker announced that the organization conducting the raid was the APD.

It’s difficult to imagine the stream of thoughts that must go through one’s head when they wake up to a series of loud noises, explosions, and screams of family members. In this case, Tyler Harrell claims, not unreasonably, that he believed his family’s home was being invaded and that he and his parents were in danger. So he grabbed his (legally owned) rifle and shot at the intruders down a stairwell, hitting a police officer in the leg. Another officer unsuccessfully returned fire, and the SWAT team soon retreated from the house. Harrell came out and surrendered peacefully shortly thereafter, according to the write-up from the Austin American-Statesman.

Harrell claims to have heard the intruders shout that they were APD only after he had fired on the men. Meanwhile, the police are effectively claiming he must have known the officers were police, given that they were announcing it over a loudspeaker. Thus, they are accusing him of willfully trying to kill a police officer and have charged him with attempted capital murder.

The purpose for this raid was that police suspected Harrell of dealing drugs, specifically marijuana and possibly cocaine. During the raid, police found 34 grams of marijuana, which is not even enough to merit a felony in the state of Texas. But in order to root out this unspeakable crime against humanity–namely, the possession of a particular dried plant–the police conducted a violent and dangerous raid, which left one person to the hospital and now has the potential to ruin a young man’s life.

The only real good news is that it appears the crime Harrell has been charged with will be almost impossible to prove. Based on my brief research, the crime of attempted capital murder would seem to require Harrell to know, at the time, that the person he shot at was a police officer conducting his lawful duties. Given the circumstances of this event, and the fact that Harrell surrendered himself peacefully a few minutes later after the SWAT team retreated, this is implausible. It would mean that Harrell knowingly made the decision to try to fight off the APD SWAT team by himself, but then decided to surrender a few minutes later, after they had retreated. Clearly, this narrative makes no sense. And one hopes, for his sake, that jurors won’t believe that preposterous story is true beyond a reasonable doubt.

Stepping back from the specifics, there are a few broader issues to unpack here.

Media Deference to Authority
The first issue is how absurdly deferential local media can be towards the police when covering stories like this. For example, this article from KXAN, the local NBC affiliate, cites exactly no information from the perspective of the accused or his lawyer, and then wraps up with this gem from the police chief and president of the local police association (emphasis added).

“Although people have tried to take two lives of our officers, our folks still come to work day in and day out in the mission of keeping Austin one of the safest big cities in the country,” said [Police Chief] Acevedo. “I hope the public takes some time to help me help lift them up in these challenging weeks.” 

The president of the Austin Police Association also made a point to mention, all officers are on high alert as they deal with a culture that seems to be bold enough to shoot officers.

Yeah, maybe it’s the culture. Or, maybe it’s the fact that you storm people’s houses while they’re asleep and lead with explosives–explosives whose whole purpose is to disorient the target. Nah, probably the culture thing. Video games corrupting the youth and what not.

This is unhelpful. When police do stupid things, like needlessly escalating a situation before trying any alternatives, they should be called on it. Maybe that will discourage them from doing it again in the future. Maybe it could also influence jurors or the prosecution not to destroy Harrell’s life over this.

(Note one of the “two lives” mentioned in the quote above relates to an unrelated incident that had occurred shortly before the raid.)

The War on Drugs is Awful
The intensity of the raid conducted in this case seems disproportionate for almost any suspect. Perhaps if someone was known to be a dangerous murderer / terrorist / rapist, an argument could be made. The fact that it was actually about a little over an ounce of pot makes this story even worse.

And yet, this is what happens in the War on Drugs all the time. It’s not clear that Harrell even was a drug dealer, as the authorities initially suspected. But even if he was, would that justify launching a military-style raid on his parent’s house?

Which leads us to another issue. To a far greater degree than other law enforcement matters, the War on Drugs has to deal with a lot of ambiguity. This is the nature of victimless crimes. In a consensual sale of drugs, neither the seller nor the buyer has any interest in reporting the crime; indeed, since they’re both breaking the law, they have a clear incentive to be as quiet as possible about it. In turn, this makes the police’s job considerably harder. They can’t get leads from a victim or a crime scene, because neither of those exist. Instead, they have to set up sting operations and take more action based on less evidence. That’s not a formula that’s likely to turn out well. In this case, the APD may have thought they were conducting a raid on Austin’s equivalent of Scarface, a person dealing narcotics and armed with automatic weapons. Instead, they probably just found a teenager who likes to smoke pot. That’s a serious margin of error.

Stigmatizing Legal Gun Ownership
We mentioned earlier that Harrell’s gun was legally owned. This seems like a small detail in the context of this story, but it’s actually critical.

You see, the reason the APD made (and now defends) the decision to use a paramilitary SWAT approach stems from their initial investigative work. They sifted through the personal garbage of the Harrells and allegedly found three items of note: a plastic bag with marijuana residue, a substance that tested positive for cocaine, and empty ammunition boxes. This last item is what justified the SWAT team.

But why should that be the case? If Harrell owned the weapon legally, why is it reasonable to assume he’s any more prone to violence and criminality than anyone else? I confess I don’t know much about guns myself, but it seems to me the police probably should. And given that the gun was legal, it follows that the ammunition they found was compatible with legal weapons. Surely, people who deal with weapons and gun laws on a daily basis would know something like this. In spite of this, however, Reason notes that the police have continued to inaccurately refer to the weapon as an AK-47, in an effort to vilify Harrell.

This same issue is seen at play in the broader story of police brutality in the US. Of the stories that broke into become national news stories, most involved individuals that were unarmed–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, etc. In cases where the victim had a gun or another weapon, authorities use it to imply criminality and avoid accountability.

This general pattern is also evident in the statistics that are used to track police brutality incidents, as compiled by The Guardian. Here, events can be filtered based on the type of weapon owned by the victim, if any. But it doesn’t attempt to draw any distinctions between whether the weapon was legal or not, or whether it was pulled out. The Guardian’s tool is a fantastic resource, but this is a major limitation. The question of whether a police shooting was justified shouldn’t hinge on whether the victim happened to possess a weapon. It should depend on whether the victim was actually a threat to anyone around them. Those are not at all the same.

In the discussion that ensued following our earlier post this week on the Orlando Shooting, I suggested one possible reason to oppose gun control is that it can create a stigma around legal gun owners. In turn, this can be used as a justification for disproportionate force to be used against otherwise peaceful people. This is not just a theoretical argument. It’s the reason Tyler Harrell and his family woke up to a violent assault on their house one April morning instead of a knock on the door.

Orlando Shooting and What Not To Do

Over the weekend, the deadliest mass shooting in US history took place at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The perpetrator was Omar Mateen, a US citizen who was from Florida. Latest reports indicated that 50 people were killed and 53 were injured. The suspect was killed in a firefight with police.

The motivation for the attack depends on who you ask. Initially, it sounded like it was primarily a hate crime. The suspect’s father indicated that his son had expressed outrage somewhat recently when he saw two men kissing in Miami. However, the suspect was Muslim, and reports later emerged that he pledged allegiance to ISIS when he called 911 after the shooting had already begun. ISIS has also reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack–though it’s likely they would do so regardless of whether they knew about it in advance or not.

Whatever the precise motivations were, one thing is certain: this tragedy will be used to advance bad policy ideas, on gun control, the War on Terror, and likely on expanding the surveillance state as well. However, the details of this incident, at least as known so far, do not offer a compelling case for any of these ideas. In fact, they show exactly the opposite.

This latest event doesn’t change anything.  Up is still up, down is still down, gun control is still a bad idea, and the War on Terror is still demonstrably futile (in addition to being morally indefensible).

To make these points, we’re recommending two exceptional articles.

The Futility of the War on Terror
The first is from Justin Raimondo at Antiwar.com. Raimondo makes the obvious, but sadly necessary, point that there’s no conceivable way that being “tough on terror”, could have prevented this tragedy. Here’s Raimondo response to the inevitable policy proposals of expanding attacks against terrorist groups in the Middle East.

There is no doubt that the War Party is going to make the case that this incident means we have to launch new attacks in the Middle East in order to wipe out the terrorist base established by ISIS. And yet given what we know about Mateen, this make absolutely no sense – for even if we nuked ISIS tomorrow, and even if Mateen was motivated by their ideology, you can’t kill an ideology with bombs. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman put it: “Fighting the terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here doesn’t seem to be working too well.”

Similarly, on the even more extreme proposals of banning Muslim immigrants, previously floated by Donald Trump, Raimondo’s take couldn’t be better.

Although Mateen’s parents came from Afghanistan, he was born here in 1986 and was an American citizen. Unless Trump and his followers are saying we have to deport all Muslims – a proposal that not even The Donald has floated – Trumpism appears to offer no solutions. The San Bernardino shooter was also an American citizen, born and raised here. And as I have pointed out before, there is no way to establish a religious test for entry into the US for the simple reason that there is no way to tell who is a Muslim: does it really need to be said that a potential terrorist isn’t going to answer truthfully? (emphasis added)

Raimondo also notes, as has been reported elsewhere, that the FBI actually interviewed the shooter three times before this shooting and found insufficient cause to pursue him further. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the FBI is incompetent, though they may be. But it does suggest that additional surveillance powers wouldn’t have helped. This individual was flagged for further scrutiny by the systems that already exist, multiple times, and authorities weren’t able to predict or prevent what happened next. And it shouldn’t be hard to see why this is the case. The FBI surely interviews thousands of people on such concerns all the time, and an infinitesimal portion of them actually end up doing something like terrible. So they’re trying to find a needle in a haystack, and it doesn’t work. The asymmetry here is too large to overcome. The FBI and company is charged with finding and preventing every possible threat; meanwhile any potential threat just has to find one weakness to succeed.

All of which is why Raimondo concludes with a sober but accurate reminder:

What this means is that we are going to have to live with this – the probability of future horrific attacks equal to if not worse than the Orlando incident – for the indefinite future. This is the new normal, and it will persist regardless of how many Muslim countries we level to the ground and no matter how high we build our walls. And it is sheer fantasy to imagine otherwise.

No, Gun Control Is Not The Answer
Obama appears to be pushing gun control as his proposed solution in response to this tragedy. This makes sense for him politically because then he doesn’t have to acknowledge that the ongoing bombing in the Middle East, miraculously, doesn’t seem to have worked. Meanwhile, if he blames it on gun control, he can implicitly blame Republican obstruction as the root evil. Frankly, this is good news. Expanding the War on Terror and expanding gun control are both terrible ideas. But the first idea would face almost no opposition while the second policy is likely to be dead on arrival in Congress. Whatever Obama’s motives, this is a preferable outcome.

But this should not be confused with suggesting stronger gun control would be a real solution. And to make that case we recommend a new article out at FEE. The author, Daniel Mitchell, notes that this is another mass shooting in a long line that occurred in a gun-free zone since firearms are not allowed in alcohol-serving establishments in Florida.

It’s an old argument, but a decidedly logical one. If you disarm law-abiding citizens, you just ensure that when someone tries to cause harm, no one has the means to stop them.

Incidentally, I was reminded of this argument in a general way when I flew home over the weekend. We had a corkscrew wine-opener in one of our carry-on bags, and it was confiscated as a potential weapon during the X-ray process. It was a minor inconvenience for us–the tool probably cost all of $9. But it was also amazing because it meant that the TSA believed the dull one-inch blade that comes on a corkscrew was now a lethal threat on the airplane. If somebody threatened you with a corkscrew in virtually any other context, you probably would just laugh, since almost anything else you could randomly grab would be equally effective as a weapon. But on a commercial airline, after law-abiding citizens have been systematically deprived of any means of self-defense, the one person with bad intentions that manages to sneak any weapon past security, becomes a mortal threat to everyone else.

The same dynamic is at work with gun control regulation, except it might actually be worse. In an airport, there’s a major security effort trying to prevent bad people from getting weapons on–it’s at least conceivable this could work. When you extend that principle to society at large, it becomes impossible. The left understands that banning marijuana didn’t stop people from accessing and using marijuana. Why would banning assault rifles work any differently?

Ultimately, there’s only one gun control policy that would work: uninvent guns. But since we can’t do that, it stands to reason that we shouldn’t only want bad people to be armed.

In the wake of a political tragedy, there is always a big demand to “do something”. But, it goes without saying that that “something” needs to have at least a chance of improving the situation. When it comes to mass shootings, expanding gun control or the War on Terror are still nonstarters. So you can still think of the victims and offer condolences or prayers; just don’t advocate policies that are likely to create more victims in the future, in America or elsewhere.

Recognizing Victims of US Wars and Gun Violence

Much fanfare has been made of the fact that President Obama left a seat empty at the State of the Union yesterday. This seat was supposed to serve as a stand-in for the usual random citizen anecdote. Instead of a particular person, it represented all the victims of gun violence that no longer have a voice.
Cute, I guess, if you’re into that. But there was a great editorial out in USA Today that begs the question, why just those victims? Why not represent the victims of US foreign policy as well? They are, after all, far more numerous.
It’s a rhetorical question of course. But it highlights an important an odd contradiction. President Obama is, just like George W. Bush before him, one of the greatest purveyors of violence and suffering in the world today. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that he has any legitimacy when passionately advocating for something he believes would save lives. If saving lives were really a priority, it seems like there are far easier and more certain paths to do it. For instance, we could stop helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen or stop drone strikes elsewhere.
I recognize that we’re all supposed to accept the fundamentally bigoted idea that American lives are inherently more valuable than everyone else’s. But if we set that premise aside, we realize that Obama would need a lot more than one empty chair to represent the victims he is responsible for. Not because he failed to act, but because he did act.
Here’s the full editorial from James Bovard that’s worth checking out:

Obama’s Executive Action on Gun Control is Designed to be Abused

Earlier this week, President Obama announced expansive executive actions on gun control. There are a few components of his plan, but the most important piece is the one that is aimed at closing the so-called gun show loophole for background checks. The merits of this goal are debatable, but the way the Obama Administration is trying to achieve it is unambiguously awful. The provisions are deliberately vague in a way that all but ensures they will be abused. Regardless of one’s personal stance on gun control in general, this piece of gun control should be opposed by everyone.*

In case you’re unfamiliar, the gun show loophole refers to the fact that individual gun sales are not subject to the same background checks as sales from a brick-and-mortar gun store. Under Federal law, if you sold your gun at a garage sale or off Craigslist (or yes, at a gun show) as just one private citizen to another private citizen, you would not need to do a background check on them.** In a way, this makes sense. Imagine the garage sale that has Post-it note prices, deals exclusively in cash, and yet also randomly has the capability to process a Federal background check on the spot. Unless you’re an employer or a weird kind of stalker that isn’t satisfied with Facebook, there’s a decent chance that you’ve never had to run one. But in another way, we should acknowledge that it’s sort of a weird exception. If the goal of background checks is to prevent bad people from getting weapons and is thus directed at the buyers, it doesn’t make sense that some buyers should be exempted based on who’s doing the selling. It’s an odd exemption, but it is the law.

The purpose of closing the gun show loophole is to require background checks more or less across the board. This is typically branded as common sense gun control by its supporters. One of the major purposes of background checks is to identify ex-felons and prevent them from getting a gun, even if their crime was nonviolent. On its face, this  may seem like a good thing. But aren’t ex-felons more likely than most to live in poor and high-crime areas? If so, isn’t it also likely that some of them would have a legitimate interest in having a weapon for self-defense? By making gun possession illegal for them, we have another law that can send people back to prison even if they didn’t harm anyone. Maybe the risks justify that policy, but it is also contributing to the world-leading prisoner population in the US. Ultimately, whether a particular background check plan is reasonable probably depends on the details, but the issue is not as black-and-white as its proponents would like to suggest.

Let’s move on to the details of the executive action itself, which is designed primarily to close gun show loophole mentioned above. I’ve copied the relevant section of the White House fact sheet below for reference (underlined portion is my emphasis):

Clarify that it doesn’t matter where you conduct your business—from a store, at gun shows, or over the Internet: If you’re in the business of selling firearms, you must get a license and conduct background checks. Background checks have been shown to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but too many gun sales—particularly online and at gun shows—occur without basic background checks. Today, the Administration took action to ensure that anyone who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms is licensed and conducts background checks on their customers. Consistent with court rulings on this issue, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has clarified the following principles:

  • A person can be engaged in the business of dealing in firearms regardless of the location in which firearm transactions are conducted. For example, a person can be engaged in the business of dealing in firearms even if the person only conducts firearm transactions at gun shows or through the Internet. Those engaged in the business of dealing in firearms who utilize the Internet or other technologies must obtain a license, just as a dealer whose business is run out of a traditional brick-and-mortar store. 
  • Quantity and frequency of sales are relevant indicators. There is no specific threshold number of firearms purchased or sold that triggers the licensure requirement. But it is important to note that even a few transactions, when combined with other evidence, can be sufficient to establish that a person is “engaged in the business.” For example, courts have upheld convictions for dealing without a license when as few as two firearms were sold or when only one or two transactions took place, when other factors also were present. 
  • There are criminal penalties for failing to comply with these requirements. A person who willfully engages in the business of dealing in firearms without the required license is subject to criminal prosecution and can be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000. Dealers are also subject to penalties for failing to conduct background checks before completing a sale.

So let’s quickly recap the highlights here:

  • If you’re “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, you must be licensed and conduct background checks on your customers
  • If you’re “engaged in the business” but fail to get a license, you can be sentenced to five years in prison and/or a $250,000
  • And most importantly, there’s no way to know for sure if you’re “engaged in the business” at all, because there is no specific threshold.
The definition of “engaged in the business” is so obviously vague, that it’s impossible for a private citizen abide by unless they either a) stop transferring guns to anyone or b) get a license before doing anything at all.
Of course, this is precisely the point. The government appears to have left it so open-ended that it could prosecute virtually any unlicensed person under this new action. In public, they can still claim that it’s not technically illegal for a private citizen to transfer guns as long as they aren’t “engaged in the business” of doing so. But in practice, they can make it effectively illegal if they interpret the language broadly enough.
This is precisely the kind of legal semantics that all liberals rightly hated under President George W. Bush–enhanced interrogation techniques (torture), unlawful combatants (prisoners of war, except we didn’t want to follow the Geneva Conventions), etc. But Obama has doubled down on this same approach–kinetic action (war), imminent threat (a threat that is not at all imminent), targeted killing (assassination), militant (somebody hit by one of our missiles, probably brown), and now this. And many liberals are cheering for it. On principle, it seems self-evident that we should oppose laws that rely on deliberately confusing the issue to garner support, especially when they are passed arbitrarily by an Executive Order.
But if that principle isn’t sufficiently compelling, we should also recognize that ambiguous language like this is ripe for abuse. If they don’t have a license, there’s no clear way to know whether someone has violated the law or not. That leaves it entirely up to the discretion of law enforcement. In addition, since no satisfied customer is going to report their possibly illegal gun seller, law enforcement must use even more discretion to decide where and how they will find these bad people. We know what happens when law enforcement has this much discretion. Disproportionately, the laws get enforced against minorities and other marginalized members of society. Can’t you already imagine the random innocent black person getting labeled as a gang-banger, thug, whatever for selling one gun? I can.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that these rules are going to be enforced primarily against the powerful and connected lobbyists that run the NRA. They’re going to be enforced against people that don’t have any power to start with, same as always. And thanks to the vagueness of these rules, if they do get brought up on charges, they won’t stand a chance.
So even if you support more gun control in general, you should think twice before supporting this form of gun control.

*By the way, I am not a gun owner, gun enthusiast, hunter, or anything of that sort. I personally have no interest in them. The most powerful gun I’ve shot was a pellet gun, and it didn’t go well. Of course, it shouldn’t matter for the discussion above. But in case it does, just know that I don’t have a dog in this fight, which coincidentally, is an appalling way to express objectivity.

**Technically, they do need to be a citizen of the same state as you, presumably to prevent issues where one’s state’s laws are more strict than the other.