By the modest standards of this blog, last week’s piece – The Truth (and Doubts) about Gun Control – has received a gratifying amount of traffic. I’m taking note and hoping to bring you more long-format treatments of important topics in the future. But today, I wanted to take a moment to go over some of the responses the article has produced.
To start, let it be known that you can’t easily write something so long that no one will tell you that you overlooked something. Even at 10,000 words, some people took exception with what they saw as sins of omission – which just serves to underscore how fiendishly complicated of a topic this is. The challenge isn’t just that gun control is multifaceted, but also that there are a lot of contested assertions. Every nook has a cranny, and every cranny has a couple of guys going at it hammer and tongs.
Out of consideration for my readers, I had to focus on some things and not others. But people have brought up some interesting points. So I’ll (briefly) go over a few here, starting with the challenges of putting data in its proper context.
If you want to know how well or poorly you’re doing at something, it helps to have a baseline for comparison. For countries, that baseline is usually other countries – but that’s easier if you’re Norway or Ecuador than if you’re the US or China. This is less of an issue when trying to understand the level of gun ownership in the United States – which is high regardless of who your baseline for comparison is – than it is when trying to understand violent crime or suicide rates. The US compares very differently to Western Europe than it does to Eastern Europe, Latin America, or East Asia.
The bias in the United States is to want to use Western Europe as the comparison because we share similar levels of wealth and similar forms of government. That approach has its merits, but it also has its weaknesses: the US is more ethnically heterogenous than European countries, and our settlement and political histories are dramatically different. The point is that there isn’t an obvious answer, and the choices you make can’t help but influence “what the data tell you.”
Take the question of whether or not the US is suffering through a violence epidemic. In last week’s report, I presented solid evidence that gun violence and other crime is in a longterm decline. Given that, some people took exception to my willingness to credit gun violence as a legitimate reason to consider gun regulation. Since violence is down, they argued, then there’s no problem here to be addressed.
The problem, again, is that much depends on which comparisons you’re making. Compare the US today to the US thirty years ago, and things look pretty rosy. Compare the US to France or Sweden, and things look considerably worse. Compare us to Latin America, and things look up again. It’s trivially easy to emphasize one comparison over another to bolster your point.
The comparison that tends to inform my position on the need for limited gun regulation is the one between urban centers in the US and the rest of the country – as well as my belief that piecemeal gun regulation doesn’t work.
While we’re on the subject of international comparisons, let me share an image that was sent to me via Twitter, which seems to provide more context for my discussion of suicide, as well as the contention that the relationship between suicide and gun prevalence is more tangential than it might appear at first blush:
I received other productive feedback as well. For example, I made a mistake in my discussion of ‘silencers’ – a reader pointed it out and I was able to correct before most people saw the article. There’s also been a little bit of a back and forth on my description of Massachusetts licensing law. It would seem that in some places I failed to distinguish between restrictions on what a person may own and restrictions on what a licensed dealer may sell. I’m in the process of tightening some of that up – thanks to everyone who has contributed with clarifications.
In other places, readers’ criticism simply reflects the underlying reality that the law is unclear and unevenly applied – which leaves a lot of us scratching our heads and doing our best to make sense of it.
Elsewhere, I was either misunderstood or I failed to express myself clearly. For instance, some readers have taken my description of Massachusetts law as “a legitimate effort to balance the rights of gun owners and public safety” to be an endorsement of those laws. It is not. While I think that the effort to balance competing interests is legitimate, I think that the result in Massachusetts has been largely unsuccessful.
The thing that has been most interesting to observe has been that while some readers have described me as a pro-gun apologist, others have dismissed my analysis as slanted because I’m clearly ‘anti-gun’. The most telling (and dispiriting) comment came from someone on a forum who accused me of demonstrating my bias by having gone through the effort of getting a gun permit:
The author is very obviously on one side of the issue, since he went to the trouble of negotiating the onerous MA requirements for a gun licence [sic], and then took the extra steps of obtaining a concealed-carry permit from a state he’d only visited once.
When making the effort to investigate a topic before reaching conclusions marks you as suspect, you know our political landscape has reached a new low. Apparently, that reader would have been more comfortable if I had done less research, not more.
But my biggest concern wasn’t whether or not that comment was fair or accurate – or even whether or not I’m being accused of bias. (Everyone’s guilty of bias.) Rather, my biggest concern has been with the pervasiveness of the assumption that there must be two and only two camps, that these camps are irreconcilable, and that you have to be in one camp or the other. When confronted with an argument, people often seem more interested in who it’s coming from than what it lays out. Like I said in the report, the American political process is suffering from a scarcity of trust.
Looking into this field challenged a lot of my views, and in some places those views changed. In the report, I was happy to admit that, and in the future I expect that my views will continue to evolve. I worked hard to do the research and to get as much of the empirical evidence right as I could, but there’s a reason I published the article on the internet and not on stone tablets.
Even so, the more time I’ve spent on this, the more convinced I’ve become of an observation I made when I first wrote about gun control on the occasion of the one year anniversary of Sandy Hook: “The gun debate is just like all the other debates in our politics, only more so.”
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
Want to help The Fog of Policy grow? Then take a minute and share this piece! Or let me know what you think in the comments section.
Have a question or suggestion for a new piece? Submit it through the Feedback form – and don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.