Taking Aim at Gun Control
By Brendan Case
October 7, 2009
This fall, as the Supreme Court flirts with the possibility of striking down anti-gun laws across the country in the landmark case, McDonald v. Chicago, flaring tempers and rising voices are proving once more that few issues can elicit uglier displays of stereotypes, or more grandiose statistical claims than gun-control. Both sides—from the NRA to the Brady Campaign—seem to agree that expert analysis can produce a successful national policy on gun ownership, and that the job of the federal government—whether the judiciary or the legislature—is to implement such a solution. Unfortunately, the welter of wild assertion really seems to support only Benjamin Disraeli’s wry thesis: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
For instance, though atrocities such as the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings are seared on the public imagination, there are other, less-reported incidents, such as the 1997 school shooting in Pearl, Miss., which was cut short when an assistant principal retrieved a shotgun from his truck, or the 2002 shooting at Appalachian Law School that was ended when two students armed with handguns disarmed the attacker.
And, of course, there are the completely contradictory statistics. John Lott, author of The Bias Against Guns, claims, “Concealed handgun laws … reduce murder rates by about 1.5 percent [per year].” Not so, counters the Violence Policy Center, observing that concealed-carry permit holders in Texas are 81 percent more likely to be arrested for weapons-related assault than other Texan adults, and that states with high rates of gun ownership (such as Louisiana), lead the nation in gun deaths.
Defensive gun use
In fact, there isn’t even agreement on the annual numbers of defensive gun use (DGU), which are crucial for understanding the effect of gun ownership in deterring crime. A much-cited 1995 study by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz on the use of firearms for legitimate self-defense found that DGUs likely number 2.5 million annually. They argue their study is more reliable than the more popular National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which registered the much lower figure of 108,000.
However, the fact remains that every study on this subject—whose results vary from the minuscule NCVS figure to the 3.6 million defensive uses counted by the L.A. Times—suffers from the challenges inherent in trying to expand a tiny sample pool to the level of the country as a whole. In the case of Kleck and Gertz, the 2.5 million figure is based on only 66 "yes" responses out of 5,000 participants, which means that the slightest variation in results (whether by chance, or by the accidental inclusion of a false positive) could produce tremendous variation at the level of national projections.As Phillip Cook and Jens Lugwig found in 1998, “Available survey data are not able to determine whether reported DGU incidents, even if true, add to or detract from public health and safety.” Or, as Dan Black and Daniel Nagin discovered in re-analyzing Lott’s data about right-to-carry laws and crime: “The estimates are disparate. Murders decline in Florida but increase in West Virginia. Assaults fall in Maine but increase in Pennsylvania [...] Murders increase, but rapes decrease [within] West Virginia.” Because of this uncertainty, Andrew J. McClurg refers to Lott’s earlier work as “one giant statistical bootstrap undertaking … regardless of how carefully and thoroughly it was conducted, there are simply too many variables contributing to violent crime to isolate concealed weapons laws as a major cause in deterring or reducing it.”
The solution of federalism
Considering the cloudiness of policy discussions on the subject, it seems that the most reasonable path going forward would be that gun control in its most controversial aspects—like concealed-carry laws—stay out of the national limelight, and remain the province of state and municipal governments. Despite the pretensions of a technocratic culture of “expertise,” there is simply no way for social scientists or policy-makers to isolate the effect of altering one variable across thousands of towns and millions of households, each of which is differently affected by a vast, interconnected web of social norms, cultural history, personal motivation and the vagaries of blind chance. As McClurg argues, “The list of non gun-related factors influencing the violent crime rate is almost endless: unemployment, poverty, illicit drug use, media violence, racial and ethnic demographics,” and the list goes on.
The Framers’ solution to the uncertainty of social engineering was federalism, by which as much substantive deliberation on public goods as possible would take place at the local level, recognizing that what works in Kentucky might not work in California. Federalism creates an interdependent nexus of communities, which are able to learn from the experience of others, but also to address specific regional issues in unique ways.
This is important, because real ethical deliberation requires a keen knowledge of the particulars involved; it is earned more in fellowship and story than in anonymous phone surveys. At ground level, stereotypes dissolve, and the indelible strangeness of the ordinary emerges. I can think of no better example for this debate than Matt Von Herbulis, a 21-year-old graphic designer with the conviction that the Gospel binds him to a life of “active non-resistance,” but who nevertheless owns a .357 Magnum revolver with a matching concealed-carry permit. “I wouldn’t use my gun to harm anyone, not even if there were a burglar threatening to harm my wife,” Von Herbulis insists, but he doesn’t see any contradiction in his possession: “I have it for hunting and for recreation. Most of my time spent with my father involves either fishing or weapons.”
Bringing Christian ethics to the local discussion
In national debates, it is practically impossible to think outside faceless statistics and sterilized models. There is no monolithic national strategy that can come to terms equally with a centuries’ old culture of hunting and target shooting that prevails in many places across the country, and with the power of firearms to magnify the drug-related violence and turf wars of inner-city gangs. Moreover, from the high altitude of a national vantage point, we cannot meet or converse with such interesting figures as Von Herbulis, for whom there will never be space in a spreadsheet.
If anything is sure, however, it is this: the utilitarian calculation that governs the current debate over gun-control affords little—if any—room for Christians to employ the terms of their faith. When an argument simply aims to determine what policy will kill the fewest people in the nation as a whole, we should expect there to be few options to interject questions or objections about the primacy of charity or the obligation of peacemaking. A strengthened local debate, however, would allow Christians to frame those ethical considerations more clearly, because the demands the Gospel places on Christians are only rarely intelligible outside the immediate context of personal obligation (e.g. we are called to bind up the broken-hearted, not to erect a free market to promote the public welfare). So, with regard to gun laws, Christians must evaluate how, within a particular cultural setting, family history or social context, their calling to charity and peace can be lived most intelligibly. Participating in this “thick” deliberation about the best life and about the strangeness of individual experience, Christians will find ample room for placing the tenets of Gospel and the demands of Scripture alongside polling data and statistical regressions.