Saturday, January 13, 2007

When health professionals advise..

..I grab for my gun. Especially since it is probably my gun that they are after. Glenn Reynolds links to a roundup of articles critical of the Harvard School of Public Health's latest press release of a study linking gun ownership and homicide. This trend of political advocacy by health professionals and institutions raises two issues of concern.

The first is the reliability of studies that are funded by partisan political organizations with an existing agenda to advance, such as gun control. In most instances these studies are designed to support foregone conclusions, or to ignore other factors that may impact on the problems under consideration. We trust the health care profession to be an unbiased advocate for scientific truth with regard to the health issues facing the public it serves, and it cannot do that while it is committed to partisan political agendas. Politicized science is bad science.

The second issue, regardless of whether the findings of the study are true or not, is to whether and how those results should determine legal policy with respect to gun ownership. Somewhere we've got this crazy notion in our heads that we should be ruled by experts. Health care professionals have expanded the scope of their role to include any and all political, economic or social interactions that can have any impact on anyone's health. So they take up violent crime as a medical issue, and think that as easily as they write a prescription for vaccinations to prevent flu outbreaks they can write prescriptions for legal bans on guns to prevent violence outbreaks. But that is a usurpation of a role that does not belong to them.

As a free people, we are not beholden to experts. Experts give us information, they provide us with expert services, they give us advice based on expertise. What they can't do, or shouldn't do, is determine the value that we as the public put on that advice relative to all of the other concerns of value that we have.

Dennis Prager gave a good example of this phenomenon on his radio program a while back. He commented on the policy in one school district of keeping the classroom doors closed when class was in session. This particular school did not have air conditioning, and on sweltering hot days the classrooms became unbearable. The policy regarding keeping the doors closed was by order of the Fire Marshall, as a precaution to slow the spread of a fire from room to room. There is no reason that the Fire Marshall should have sole input on this policy, his role should be to give advice based on his area of expertise to the school board and allow them, with the input from parents, how much emphasis to place on the risks posed by potential but rare fires to the ability of teachers and students to accomplish their learning objectives on hot days.

Dr Helen posts a question in a similar vein, about psychologists who ty to keep people safe in violent confrontations like car-jackings by preaching a psychology of acquiescence and submission. Is that how we want to approach the dangers of life, as helpless victims hoping to be spared by fate?

Experts look at people as statistics, and they want to use their expertise to move those statistics in a favorable direction. But they only see the statistics related to their own narrow field of expertise, and can't make the tradeoffs of competing values that people have to make in their own lives. And by acquiescing to the experts, people give up the one thing of primary value to their existence, which is self determination. Lets not let them take that from us.

Update 01/16/07: Glenn Reynolds offers a unique perspective on gun control in the form of pro-gun ordinances in today's New York Times.
Also, Of Arms and the Law blog does some research on the Joyce Foundation.

49 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I am not too interested in firearms issues, but as I glanced at Instapundit's post my eye lit on "Joyce Foundation."

I'd never heard of it until about 3 days ago, when NPR promoted something about Joyce's annual awards to artists of color.

I immediately applied the Bubba Filter: Would NPR have spoken approvingly about awards limited to white folks?

Answer, no.

My further interest on anything the racists at Joyce Foundation might do: 0

January 13, 2007 12:50 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

All the comments seemed to be based on the press release rather than reading the paper. As far as I can see the press release makes no policy recommendations at all - the furthest it goes is:

Our findings suggest that in the United States, household firearms may be an important source of guns used to kill children, women and men, both on the street and in their home

This is an empiral question which is settled through statistical enquiry and which requires considerable expertise. Whether the enquiry is valid or not is best decided by reading the detail of the paper and its methodology - not by looking at who paid them or their motivations. If the statistics are valid it is then a political question as to what to do with these facts.

January 14, 2007 12:07 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Mark,
Welcome to the DD! You're the first new poster in awhile who wasn't trying to sell low-rate mortgages.

Your point is well taken, but my point still stands. The methodology of the studies are suspect and also these are the organizations that Harvard chose to conduct the studies. In order to control for bias they could have commissioned studies groups friendly to gun-rights or invited them to review the results prior to publishing.

My other point still stands. Why is a medical organization expanding its role into the area of social problems like gun violence? This is outside their area of expertise, Medicine is about the human body, what makes it sick and what makes it well, from a biological perspective. If they want to study better ways to treat gunshot victims in the ER then that would be a good use of their resources. But a medical education gives one no more insight or expertise into how to solve social problems than a trade school diploma does. They are trying to use their prestige and authority in one field to influence politics.

January 14, 2007 7:23 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

What's a non-household firearm?

My cousin's husband was a Chicago cop. When he was a home, he put his gat on top of the refrigerator to keep it away from his kids.

Except for police and military armories and perhaps shooting clubs, I cannot think of any firearms that are not household firearms.

January 14, 2007 10:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

How nice to be welcomed.

I responded to this post because I am doing a course on
"science and the public"
which includes a small project and I am planning to do something on medical statistics.

Your initial post seemed to be concerned that the Harvard study was exceeding the role role of experts. Now it seems to me you have slightly changed the message to

1) guns are outside the sphere of competence of medical statisticians

2) expert advice should be controlled for bias by including experts with a different political opinion

Taking (1) first. Medical statistics is not all about treatment. Medical statisticians get involved in a whole lot of social science type stuff. It is inevitable if you want to understand the causes of cancer or violence in patients with personality disorders (for example). In fact I trust their competence in statistics rather more than most social scientists who often seem to think that as long as you can quote a p value then the case is proved. It is a very reasonable extension of that expertise to look at factors related to homicide and suicide.

(2) It would be quite a big change to most scientific publishing if every time you published a paper with political implications you had to also publish a paper representing the opposite view or get the opposite camp to review it. Does every evolutionary biologist have to get their work reviewed by a creationist? I am from the UK where gun control is not a political issue. So we have a different process for publishing papers such as the Harvard paper from the US?

What is wrong with a set of people with the appropriate expertise, whatever their politics, publishing a paper of this kind and letting other experts respond to the paper as they wish?

January 14, 2007 11:39 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Mark Frank says:
It would be quite a big change to most scientific publishing if every time you published a paper with political implications you had to also publish a paper representing the opposite view or get the opposite camp to review it.

It is important to separate the science from policy prescriptions, especially when there are policical implications. If the public is to trust in the integrity of scientific studies, then the least hint of partisan bias has to be removed. As it is the public has little trust in such studies, even if they are carried out as objectively as possible.

This is a result of the politicization of science, and why I say that institutions of science should stick to their "knitting" as the saying goes and not look to expand their role into policy creation. Scientists have as much right as anyone to engage in partisan politics, but they should be careful to clearly separate their role as scientists from their role as political actors. In the second role they have no more authority than any other individual citizen.

But groups like the Center For Science in the Public Interest have done damage to both science and the public interest by trying to usurp their authority as scientists to give their policy demands some aura of infallibility. What they've done is give scientists the image of meddling nannies.

People have this notion that there is a scientific way to run society, that science can tell us how to stucture our lives. But politics shouldn't be about optimizing the life metrics of society, but about individuals negotiating with each other to balance their respective values and interests in an orderly fasion.

The state is not obligated to say that safety and health are the premier value that trump all others. Those are the premier values that the medical profession is committed to, but they don't get to make that call for society.

January 14, 2007 1:21 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Pressure groups all over the political spectrum have misused science. And, of course they shouldn't do it.(I had never heard of the CSPI but from its website it is overtly a pressure group and doesn't pretend to be a research centre or anything). The same applies to advertising campaigns that say their scientists have a cure for ageing of whatever. But I wouldn't put the Harvard paper in that category. It makes no policy recommendations. It is a peer reviewed paper that anyone who is prepared to buy it can review and criticise. What's the problem?

January 14, 2007 10:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Mark:

In so far as this

Our findings suggest that in the United States, household firearms may be an important source of guns used to kill children, women and men, both on the street and in their home.

goes, there isn't a problem.

The problem is, it doesn't go far enough, in that the implications are worthy only of a vacuum.

Let's say the assertion is completely true. Does that mean if guns were to suddenly disappear, many of those same people wouldn't have been killed by other means?

Further, still assuming the assertion is completely true. What now? Obviously, get rid of the guns. But whose? Everybody's, or just those belonging to the law abiding gun owners?

If criminals no longer fear a homeowner with a gun, will people be safer, or more at risk?

Studies such as this, which will inevitably be used to substantiate a policy position, are themselves a problem to the extent they focus solely on some specific phenomenon, and completely ignore the knock-on effects.

It would be as if someone did a study, and noted that the weight of landing gear on airplanes was an important contribution to fuel consumption.

Get rid of the landing gear, right?

BTW, Just as a matter of style, there is a word for children, women and men: people. And there is a word for the kind of writing this snippet embodies: pompous.

Pompous writing almost always has an agenda in train.

January 15, 2007 6:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Skipper

You seem to want the authors to exceed their expertise.

It seems to me they are doing quite right to stick to the statistics and then let the people/politicians think about the implications - which is what Duck asked for. I expect the authors are in favour of some kind of gun control, that was very likely their motivation for doing the research, but they have quite rightly kept clear of making policy statements and stuck to what can be deduced from the statistics.

What do want? That all papers should include a complete discussion of all aspects of gun control? Or perhaps hat only people with no interest in the subject one way or the other did any research?

January 15, 2007 12:49 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Mark:

I expect the authors are in favour of some kind of gun control, that was very likely their motivation for doing the research ...

As do I.

Consequently, I suspect they, with malice aforethought, constructed the research to realize their expectations.

That is not science, that is politics.

I'm not asking them to make policy statements. Rather, I am insisting their research not be so narrowly focussed as to wholly ignore that fact that gun control, or lack thereof, can be distilled to a single number.

What's worse, in doing so, their silence unavoidably leaves the impression that none of these murders would have happened in the absence of guns.

Without any notion of the delta, which is surely within the realm of their research, their conclusion is nearly worthless.

January 15, 2007 8:29 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Duck and Skipper:

Of course, as Britons with little interest in 'plinking', what Mark and I might wonder is how much your jumping on any study about guns is pre-determined by your stance on that precious right to bear arms.

That's also political.

But to the wider point: is the link between lots of guns floating about and lots of gun deaths too bloody obvious or something?

January 16, 2007 3:53 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

... is the link between lots of guns floating about and lots of gun deaths too bloody obvious or something?

Think real carefully about that link, because it is getting ready to show how rife superficial social science research is (the point I attempted to bring up at Diversely we Sail).

European nations, the primary controls against which the US is compared, are essentially homogenous, without any experience of chattel slavery, and with very little migration.

In contrast, the US is heterogeneous, has a significant population that is still suffering the knock-on effects of chattel slavery, and has a significant migrant population.

Does that explain the entire delta? No. But the delta gets a whole heck of a lot smaller if attempting to compare like against like; e.g., what is the murder rate among the US native born population with European ancestory? How "researchers" get away with such bogus comparisons is a source of eternal mystery to me.

The second issue is even more fundamental. Guns are an established fact in the US. There is simply no wishing them away. Having taken that on board, what measures are available that do not leave the balance of power overwhelmingly in the hands of criminals?

Further, some US states have allowed concealed carry. At first, gun control advocates were predicting a blood bath. Didn't happen. Instead, crime rates dropped somewhat in the aftermath of concealed carry laws.

Perhaps in an ideal world, citizens would never have had guns in the first place. That's as may be. But in the real world, they do. I don't doubt that the US has a higher murder and accidental death rate because of guns. But how much higher? Compared with what realistic alternative?

In seemingly pacific Britain, how would the hooliganism rate change if the hooligans had reason to worry about getting shot for their efforts?

I don't have any ready answers for those questions. But I'm also not a "researcher." Those that are need to think the problem through a little bit more before trotting out their in-a-vacuum statistics.

Full disclosure: I do not now, nor have I ever, owned a gun.

January 16, 2007 7:06 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Why couldn't you just make it illegal to keep a firearm anywhere other than at licensed, regulated shooting ranges?

January 16, 2007 7:48 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

In seemingly pacific Britain, how would the hooliganism rate change if the hooligans had reason to worry about getting shot for their efforts?

This is a good point. A good example of the cultural disconnect between Britain and the US is the case of the Scottish businessman who was attending a conference in Houston - I don't recall all the details, it was back in the 90's. After a night of pub-crawling, he engaged in some high-spirited hijinks which included jumping the fence of a private home and cavorting in the back yard. The homeowner, fearing the guy was a burglar or worse, shot him dead.

The reaction from the UK was that the homeowner was a murderer and demanded that he be charged as such. There was some of that sentiment in the US, but most Americans sided with the homeowner. He was not charged.

This feeds into the point I was also making about social science not deciding policy issues for the public. Brit's point assumes that if we conclude that the availability of guns leads to higher gun deaths, ipso facto we are obligated to ban gun ownership. We are not. It is a question of competing values, and safety is not the supreme value. If being statistically safe means that I am forbidden from using deadly force on an intruder in my home, whether with a gun or a knife, then it is a level of safety that is not worth having. I don't value safety that highly.

January 16, 2007 10:14 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I fully accept that it's entirely up to Americans to choose in the trade-off between lots of guns and less gun crime. It just seems silly to deny that they are unrelated.

Back to Britain - 'hooligans' were groups of young men in the 1980s who met at pre-arranged venues to engage in punch-ups, which was their idea of fun.

It was a particularly stupid craze. They were nothing like US gangstas.

Surely restricting gun ownership to regulated ranges would enable you to tackle gangsterism? Why does anyone need a gun in a city centre?

In the UK you can, after all, fire guns at gun clubs. It's a sport. So your story of the man shooting the drunk Scotsman cavorting in his garden does bring up the question: what's the motivation for gun ownership?

Is it for the hobby/sport, or is it really because you like the idea of being able to shoot somebody dead if they mooch unwisely onto your property?

January 16, 2007 10:58 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

Does that mean if guns were to suddenly disappear, many of those same people wouldn't have been killed by other means?

Pretty much. We don't hear too much about impulsive, drunken poisonings.

Now, you know how suspicious I usually am about statistical expertise and the conclusions the experts assert therefrom, but is there really any doubt at all on this one? The US, South America, Russia and South Africa all have loose gun regulation and very high homicide rates. What evidence are you looking for? There are good arguments for private gun ownership, but they have to do with the relationship between the citizen and state more than how safe it makes the general population, no?

Mark:

Well-reasoned, but getting back to Duck's first point, do you by any chance sell low-rate mortgages?

January 16, 2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Is it for the hobby/sport, or is it really because you like the idea of being able to shoot somebody dead if they mooch unwisely onto your property?

Yes.

Seriously there are several reasons.
1. Self defense - I will defend my property and my life with deadly force if I need to. That said, I would not do as the Houston homeowner did and shoot someone merely for trespassing in my yard. Even if someone broke into my house I would fire a warning shot in the hope of scaring them away, and would only shoot at the intruder if I felt no other option. One thing I won't do is run from the house and let him have his run of the place. It's my house, I get to stay, he has to leave.

2. Plinking - I enjoy it as a sport.

3. Collecting - I enjoy guns as aesthetic objects, and as with my Enfield, as historic objects as well. It's fascinating for me to hold and shoot a weapon that may have come ashore at Normandy or been fired at Japanese soldiers in Burma.

4. Being prepared for the worst - in the American tradition of civilian militias, I want to be a part of the readiness for action that ensures this never happens in my country.

January 16, 2007 12:18 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Peter

I am sorry - I don't get the bit about selling low rate mortgages (I don't sdell anything except myself as it happens - I am a training consultant) - but I have had a long day...

Hey Skipper - I am really not sure what you are saying.


Consequently, I suspect they, with malice aforethought, constructed the research to realize their expectations.

That is not science, that is politics.


Are you saying that they made up the figures or that the conclusions don't follow from the figures? That seems to me the only things that matter. Would you dismiss "NRA funded research because they, with malice aforethought, constructed the research to realize their expectations". I wouldn't. I might look more carefully at a paper if the conclusion matched the likely motivation of the researchers - but if the statistics are valid then they are valid. It is a hopeless quest to find a disinterested researcher on such a political theme - no research would get done.

As to looking at the larger picture - there are plenty of others who can conjecture on the importance of their work. But why should they be expected to make claims that don't follow from their figures? They are statisticians not politicians - that's the point.

January 16, 2007 1:32 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Mark,
Peter's joke is in reference to my first reply to you:

Welcome to the DD! You're the first new poster in awhile who wasn't trying to sell low-rate mortgages.

You see, we get these spam-bots that post messages that say something like "Hey, great blog! Check out my blog where you can find out about (low rate mortgages, weight loss miracle drugs, stock-picking secrets revealed, etc.). So when I saw an unfamiliar name in the comments, my first guess was that you were a spam-bot. Because, outside of the regulars, we don't get a lot of new people submitting comments. Usually. Lately. In awhile.

We get a lot of page views, though.

January 16, 2007 2:33 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

Why couldn't you just make it illegal to keep a firearm anywhere other than at licensed, regulated shooting ranges?

Here is the fundamental disconnect: we cannot wish guns away, and we cannot wish criminals with guns away.

This is the balance of power thing I was talking about above, and what Duck alluded to in resisting home invasions.

Sure, we could force guns to be stored at gun ranges. But whose guns would be there? Everyone's, or just those belonging to law abiding citizens? If the latter -- which is a sure a thing as you are likely to encounter -- then only criminals will possess guns, and the balance of power will have shifted dramatically to them.

Duck's point about home invasions also points out a significant disconnect between the US and the UK regarding self protection. IIRC, in the UK, you can be prosecuted for murder if you shoot an intruder. In the US, that is practically inconceivable. Most, if not all, states have laws explicitly allowing the use of deadly force to protect one's home.

'hooligans' were groups of young men in the 1980s who met at pre-arranged venues to engage in punch-ups, which was their idea of fun.

I could swear I read a Dalrymple article within the last year that discussed how gangs were terrorizing homeowners and people going about their business, all without fear of retribution.

Peter:

Pretty much. We don't hear too much about impulsive, drunken poisonings.

So murder was pretty much non-existent before widespread gun ownership?

The US, South America, Russia and South Africa all have loose gun regulation and very high homicide rates.

That is another example of a specious comparison. Gun regulation is similar between all the mentioned societies, but almost everything else is wildly different. Valid comparisons are best made with many commons and few variables, not the other way around.

Here, the best comparison would be comparing the murder rate among US native born citizens with a European ancestory, and, say, the UK. Will the US be higher? Sure. Will it be nearly as much higher as the blanket statistics, which completely elide sub-group differences? Not a chance.

The argument for private gun ownership is in fact driven by how safe it makes the general population, as well as the relationship between citizen and state.

As with the Iraq war and the MAL, there is no such thing as a null alternative. The question isn't between guns and no guns, because no guns simply isn't possible, however desirable it may, in theory, be. Rather, the only realistic alternatives on offer are private gun ownership, or no private gun ownership, and criminals still possessing guns.

Unless you can pose a different alternative, then which do you think is the safest option for the general population? Given the experience with concealed carry laws, I suspect the balance is on the former.

Mark:

Are you saying that they made up the figures or that the conclusions don't follow from the figures?

Neither. The conclusion they draw is glaringly obvious to even the casual observer of reality. I do view their motives, and their willingness to analyze knock-on effects, or look for contradictory evidence, with the same skepticism with which I would view an NRA funded study.

While I hadn't viewed this until just now, there is a clear similarity between what I have written above, and more scholarly criticisms of such "research:

The foregoing attitudes are central to the anomalies we find in reviewing the health advocacy literature against gun ownership. This literature exists in a vacuum of lock-step orthodoxy almost hermetically sealed from the existence of contrary data or scholarship. Such contrary data and scholarship routinely go unacknowledged; at best, they are evaded by misleading association with the sinister forces of the gun lobby.[18] With rare exception, reference citations in the (p.520)(p.521)anti-gun health advocacy literature are to other writings in that same literature. If the universe of sources thus circumscribed does not yield appropriate anti-gun data, editorials are cited as data without noting that they are mere expressions of editorial opinion.[19] On occasion, health advocates cite publications by partisan anti-gun groups for purported factual data--often without clear warning to readers of the group's partisan affiliation.[20] The health advocates do so knowing that the data is subject to contradiction by non-partisan, scholarly sources.[21] In contrast, when health advocate literature mentions a claim from a gun lobby source against firearms, that origin is noted conspicuously. Far from concealing or ignoring the potential for bias as health advocates do with anti-gun lobby claims, pro-gun bias is deemed to render pro-gun claims specious per se.[22](p.522)

Even more damningly:

A review ... reveals several consistent patterns. First, the literature cited is almost always that published by medical or public health researchers. Little is cited from the criminological or sociological field. Second, reports with findings not supporting the position of the journal are rarely cited. Finally, several assumptions are presented as fact: that there is a causal association between gun ownership and the risk of violence, that this association is consistent across all demographic categories, and that additional legislation will reduce the prevalence of firearms and consequently reduce the incidence of violence.

Incestuous and selective literature citations may be acceptable for political tracts, but introduces an artificial bias into scientific publications. Stating as fact associations which may be demonstrably false is not just unscientific, it is unprincipled.[31]


(Please read the whole thing. A more comprehensive indictment is difficult to imagine)

Among the more glaring instances of such chicanery is the continued reliance on gross statistics in the US, when a significant portion of those numbers are indicative not of guns' contribution to violence, but rather the centuries' abuse Africa Americans have dealt with in the US.

The moment they start comparing the murder* rate among between like populations, and noting the delta, if any, then I will take notice. Until then, it is merely statistical selectivity in pursuit of a preconceived end.

*With respect to public health policy, only the end is important, the means are irrelevant. If murder rates are similar, then getting rid of guns will have no discernable effect on the outcomes.

January 16, 2007 7:50 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

Your dogged determination to take every national ideal you like and put it into some universal objective "what works" paradigm leads you astray once again. Can you give us an example of a policy or ideal you really favour as an ideal that you have regretfully concluded doesn't "work"?

The argument for private gun ownership is in fact driven by how safe it makes the general population

I think not. The argument is driven by the belief it makes the individual innocent, law-abiding citizen more free and self-reliant and that is so fundamental that a price in violence is worth paying. In a sense the argument doesn't really care about an abstract called the "general population". If it did, you would have big problems. You guys have been shooting up your general population since the Revolution.

This issue divides Americans from the bunch like no other. There are a few other gun nations, but none I am aware that make a constitutional ideal out of it. There is glory there somewhere, but also a brake on compromises in the name of "what works". I'm quite prepared to accept that private gun ownership plays a big role in keeping rural America very safe, but in the cities?.

That being said, I agree with you that rising crime rates in Britain and legal madness about self-defence should cause them to revisit their anti-gun religion, but as their reaction to surges in public drunkeness was to throw open the bars, I'm not holding my breath.

Perhaps you have rightly become overly sensitive to the rote liberal/Euro-Canadian disdain thrown your way, but I don't think your answer is to try and claim your streets are objectively safer, at least not in urban areas. I'll take a midnight walking tour of downtown Toronto and you do the same in Detroit and then we'll compare notes, ok? And it is disingenous of you to focus just on murder. The real worry is impulsive killing from drunk husbands, drug-addled street punks, etc.

Here, the best comparison would be comparing the murder rate among US native born citizens with a European ancestory...

I really, really, really hope you aren't going there, Skipper. Besides if you did, that would make me a Scot and I'd never forgive you. There is no such comparison whatsoever worth making and the ethnocentric overtones are distasteful, not to mention demographically self-defeating. You are right that culture plays a more important role than is usually acknowledged, but that is an argument about why the comparisons you want to make are meaningless. If you subtracted culture from the mix, safe gun-light Canada would be near-irrefutable proof that the US is on the wrong track. Far too many self-impressed Canadians are happy to make that comparison. Don't give them fodder.

January 17, 2007 3:40 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, it is interesting that you bring up drunkenness in Britain, because that is a perfect example of the selective nature of these public safety mainas. I don't have stats for Britain, but here are roughly comparable figures for gun deaths and alcohol related deaths in the USA.

In the US in 2001 an estimated 75,766 people died as a result of alcohol related causes. In the same year deaths caused by guns totalled 29,573. So alcohol kills 2.5 times more people than guns, although I imagine there is some overlap in the numbers.

So why isn't Brit calling for a total ban on alcohol? What are the benefits of alcohol usage that justify this many deaths? There are no practical benefits of alcohol use, it is an expensive and deadly luxury.

With regard to Skipper's point I'll say that the many communities where gun ownership is widespread and gun violence next to nil show that gun ownership in and of itself is not a significant risk factor. Gun ownership becomes a problem when it is combined with social dysfunction. Universal gun bans aim to mitigate the symptoms of social dysfunction in one segment of the population by denying ownership rights to the entire population.

It is possible that gun ownership makes dysfunctional communities less safe and functional communities more safe. It is also possible that gun ownership makes a law abiding person in a dysfunctional community safer than he would be without a gun. The Harvard study makes no distinctions between these factors, and neither will the anti-gun pressure groups.

I think it gets down to a fundamental question of rights. Does an individual have a right to defend himself, his family and his property? If the answer is yes, then you don't take that right away for the sake of tweaking the national safety statistics.

January 17, 2007 5:22 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I do appreciate that the place of the gun in US culture makes it a totally different case to Britain. And I do appreciate that guns can't be wished away.

If they could, surely they would have been in the immediate aftermath of Columbine or a similar disaster.

(Which is why the alcohol comparison is not apt. If Klebold and Harris had walked into school brandishing martinis the world would be a slightly less ghastly place.)

But I just wonder what the tipping point is, if there is one at all.

Skipper:

Sure, we could force guns to be stored at gun ranges. But whose guns would be there? Everyone's, or just those belonging to law abiding citizens? If the latter -- which is a sure a thing as you are likely to encounter -- then only criminals will possess guns, and the balance of power will have shifted dramatically to them.

That argument just doesn't seem to ring true for me. Law abiding citizens do not walk around the midnight streets with loaded guns anyway.

And as for burglars, you'd have to be a terrified freak with a loaded gun nearby, who can't sleep for fear of things that go bump in the night if shooting them is a real option.

Surely the real problem is that you want to keep the 'gun culture', by which you mean white middle class folk lovingly polishing their firearms, but you also need to tackle inner-city gangstas and prevent Klebold and Harris getting hold of semi-automatics. And doing it all at once is very difficult.

(PS. Dalyrmple should be taken with a substantial pinch of salt.)

January 17, 2007 5:40 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

So why isn't Brit calling for a total ban on alcohol?

Because brights seek to eradicate non-bright vices, not bright ones.

January 17, 2007 5:47 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I'm not calling for a ban on guns by the way. I'm just trying to work out the real motives behind the debate.

January 17, 2007 5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Which is why the alcohol comparison is not apt. If Klebold and Harris had walked into school brandishing martinis the world would be a slightly less ghastly place"

Really? None of kids in my high school died from interacting with guns, but several who died from interacting with alcohol while in high school. Therefore my high school would have been less ghastly from banning alcohol instead of guns, so your claim is not universally true.

The difference is that Columbine was all at once, instead of drips and drabs over the years. But if you're arguing on an overall, statistically basis, it's not valid to be distracted by spikes. The very fact that Columbine remains "fresh" demonstrates how unusual it is. Kids in high school die from alcohol frequently, so frequently it's basically noise unless it's someone you know. But Columbine was so rare that it still galvanizes the national psyche years later.

January 17, 2007 8:34 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Therefore my high school would have been less ghastly from banning alcohol instead of guns, so your claim is not universally true.

But it is true. If Klebold and Harris didn't have access to guns, all those kids would be alive, regardless of the drinking problems at your school.

Alcoholics generally only kill themselves so it's a matter of personal responsibility. Gun maniacs kill everybody in range.

January 17, 2007 8:40 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Alcoholics generally only kill themselves so it's a matter of personal responsibility.

Have you never heard of DUI?

To SH's point, do you really worry about getting killed in one of these mass shootings? You've picked two of the rarest events to base your legal views on, wrongful conviction/execution and mass shootings.

Besides, it's not like British gun regulations protects you from it.

January 17, 2007 10:15 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Duck:

Dunblane changed British gun laws.

I'm not sure that rarity is relevant.

January 17, 2007 11:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Orrin is very perceptive about the freedom/security trade-off and understands the opposition between them makes absolute either unworkable. We need both and it seems to me this debate is where the trade-off should lie, with the US valuing freedom more. Of course, Canadians and Brits can be quite sniffy about how they are just as free as Americans, yada, yada and don't need guns. Even the Scandinavians think that way and believe it. At some point freedom has to be distilled into concrete components, as does security, to have any other than rhetorical use.

But Duck, Skipper, I can't follow your argument that the freedom of private (hand)gun ownership results in no trade-off at all--in fact it actually makes everybody more safe and secure. That's nonsense-on-big-walking-sticks, except in certain carefully-crafted self-defence scenarios.

Apart from different histories and cultural traditions, another major factor that influences people mightily on this questions, especially urban dwellers, is how effective and responsive your police force is. Up here it is widely assumed they respond very fast and dependably to any danger, and I think they do. But about ten years ago the Ottawa Police Force got badly stretched from years of underfunding and problems arose. A guy I knew who owned a restaurant had some vandals break all the windows. When he called the police, he was told they were swamped and couldn't respond in any way to property damage complaints and so he was on his own. That sure puts the whole gun issue in a different light pretty darn fast.

January 17, 2007 11:48 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter's post is exactly on point.

With alcohol there is a trade-off between freedom (enjoying a quiet pint) and security (DUI) and freedom has (mostly) won out.

I'm not arguing that guns should be banned in America. I'm just arguing that your notion that there is no such trade-off in lots of guns versus gun crime is nonsense.

January 17, 2007 11:57 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

As I say, I have little interest in firearms regulation pro or con.

I do bristle a bit when people start talking about the allegedly high American murder rate. We're a gunslingin' society, fer sure, but if you take even a modestly long view, the allegedly low murder rates in, eg, Japan disappear.

For the record, the most murderous society, per capita, is the Thule Eskimoes. Although they have guns now, most of their murders are still done th old-fashioned way.

January 17, 2007 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AOG: Therefore my high school would have been less ghastly from banning alcohol instead of guns, so your claim is not universally true.

Brit: But it is true. If Klebold and Harris didn't have access to guns, all those kids would be alive, regardless of the drinking problems at your school.

Note that I said "my" high school, so what kids are you talking about? Not one life at my high school would have been saved by gun control. Therefore your claim is untrue for my high school, therefore it is not universally true.

Further, the situation in my high school is far more common in the USA than the situation at Columbine. Therefore, across all high schools, there are a lot more kids' graves to point at to say "all those kids would still be alive" with regard to alcohol than guns. Therefore, if it is saving lives of high school students instead of restricting guns that motivates you, you'd do better to support raising the drinking age than restricting guns.

P.S. I think it's a bit disingenuous to use the example of having a quiet pint at a pub as the typical example of alcohol use and Columbine as the typical gun use.

P.P.S. Should opposition to gun control and support for capital punishment be linked? Both serve to sacrifice innocents in exchange for a higher rate of attrition among the criminal class.

January 17, 2007 7:05 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

SH:

Maybe it's my fault, or maybe it's yours, most likely a bit of both - but you've misinterpreted me there.

Of course Columbine isn't typical gun use. Typical gun use is Duck plinking happily away at the range, harming nobody (expect, hopefully, the targets).

With alcohol you have the trade-off between the freedom for responsible adults to enjoy moderate intake; versus the dangers (drink driving, alchohol abuse etc).

With guns, you have the trade-off between the freedom of relaxed gun laws and the resultant proliferation of firearms in society; and the dangers of gun death.

In Britain we come down on the side of freedom with alcohol (slightly more so than the US, since the minimum age is 18 here); but far more on the side of security with guns.

I accept that it is entirely up to American citizens, and nothing much to do with me, how you choose in the trade-off.

My disagreement is when you seem to want to deny the existence or importance of this trade-off.

January 18, 2007 1:34 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

But a good question our American pals would ask us is why, when we suffer Dunblanes or Marc Lepines, do the overwhelming majority of Brits and Canadians start aping Michael Moore rotely. We don't have much of a sense of trade-off either.

Using Dunblanes and Columbines
is about as helpful as using Jack the Ripper to discuss sexual morality. These horrors are both statistically extremely rare and timeless. Surely the problem with guns is urban crime and the drugs/alcohol/vandal nexus. I don't see how anyone can sit by and watch that grow while insisting private gun ownership must never be allowed.

January 18, 2007 6:44 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The trade-off is largely subconscious.

It was very easy for us Britons to take a sledgehammer to the freedom to own firearms after Dunblane because it is not a freedom we cherished much beforehand. Essentially, shooting guns is a geeky minority hobby in the UK, and about as cool as spending your 21st birthday playing electronic Rock Paper Scissors.

Which is why I appreciate that the US is a completely different case.

Dunblanes and Columbines are very rare, but they are catalysts for change in public opinion, which can tip the scales in that trade-off balancing act. There is always a sense after them of "We must never let this happen again", which I don't think is necessarily unhealthy or even misguided.

January 18, 2007 7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not arguing there is never a trade-off, what I am arguing is that the idea that the trade off is a simple, universal function is wrong.

In some cases a gun culture increases safety, in some cases it decreases safety, in some cases it doesn't make any difference. In the same way, for some people access to alcohol will improve their physical and mental well being, for others it will be destructive.

One thing we do see, however, is that gun control laws don't seem to make much difference. Duck and Skipper factor this in when discussing the subject. Klebold and Harris obtained their weapons in violation of multiple gun control laws. So if you're going to argue that gun control laws would affect the trade off, you have to address why such laws didn't in your example case.

I note that you consider one of the ill effects of gun culture to be "the proliferation of firearms in society". Then, as sort of an after thought, you mention "risk of gun deaths". Right there we see how this is more than a public safety issue for you. That's fine, we are all entitled to our biases, as long as you realize it's a bias.

January 18, 2007 8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not arguing there is never a trade-off, what I am arguing is that the idea that the trade off is a simple, universal function is wrong.

In some cases a gun culture increases safety, in some cases it decreases safety, in some cases it doesn't make any difference. In the same way, for some people access to alcohol will improve their physical and mental well being, for others it will be destructive.

One thing we do see, however, is that gun control laws don't seem to make much difference. Duck and Skipper factor this in when discussing the subject. Klebold and Harris obtained their weapons in violation of multiple gun control laws. So if you're going to argue that gun control laws would affect the trade off, you have to address why such laws didn't in your example case.

I note that you consider one of the ill effects of gun culture to be "the proliferation of firearms in society". Then, as sort of an after thought, you mention "risk of gun deaths". Right there we see how this is more than a public safety issue for you. That's fine, we are all entitled to our biases, as long as you realize it's a bias.

January 18, 2007 8:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

It can be healthy if the expectation is unrealistic and if the cure is worse than the disease. The consensus in the US is that the rise in organized crime during the Prohibition period was not a reasonable price to pay for the benefits of lowered alcohol consumption. The same can be argued for the War on Drugs.

As far as the UK, if gun ownership was so low to begin with then it is arguable whether restrictions will have much impact. It will potentially stop accidental deaths among law abiding gun owners, but in order to keep guns out of criminal hands the state will have to put the black market in guns out of business. How successful has Britain been in that endeavor?

January 18, 2007 8:55 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Your dogged determination to take every national ideal you like and put it into some universal objective "what works" paradigm leads you astray once again. Can you give us an example of a policy or ideal you really favour as an ideal that you have regretfully concluded doesn't "work"?

You have completely misapprehended my argument, which boils down to two things:

1. We have to deal with what is. All options must take that as a starting point, no matter whether one thinks the starting point works, or not. So when I say [the] argument for private gun ownership is in fact driven by how safe it makes the general population that means that all alternative gun control policies will make the population less safe, given how widespread guns are in the US.

2. The "research" that is so often cited in favor of extensive gun control is hopelessly corrupt trash.

Can you give us an example of a policy or ideal you really favour as an ideal that you have regretfully concluded doesn't "work"?

Good question. I'll have to think about it.

I really, really, really hope you aren't [advocating similar populations], Skipper. Besides if you did, that would make me a Scot and I'd never forgive you. There is no such comparison whatsoever worth making and the ethnocentric overtones are distasteful, not to mention demographically self-defeating.

Who knew being a Scot, aside from having some singularly off-putting ideas about cuisine, would be such a bad thing?

The US population is entirely unlike European populations. The moment gun control advocates compare the US murder rate against Europe, or Japan, they have absolutely begged the question of just what the heck they are comparing. If they were to try harder to compare like against like, then the delta would be a heck of a lot smaller -- there is absolutely no denying that if the African-American murder rate was subtracted from the US murder rate, the result would plummet.

Am I suggesting that African Americans are more murder prone? Heck no. Rather, I am insisting that the substantial difference in murder rates is one knock-on effect, among many, of slavery and subsequent discrimination. Consequently, when gun control advocates make such blatantly silly comparisons as if they had some worthwhile content, what they are really concluding is that slavery was a bad, very bad, thing.

Well, duh.

... safe gun-light Canada would be near-irrefutable proof that the US is on the wrong track.

Within the context of this discussion, that may well be true. But it is also irrelevant. That is not the path the US is on, and we can't wish ourselves gun-light. I absolutely do not argue there is no tradeoff, or that we are more safe and secure

Brit:

Law abiding citizens do not walk around the midnight streets with loaded guns anyway.

Au contraire. There are states in the US which allow concealed carry, given a background check and a minimal amount of training.

... you'd have to be a terrified freak with a loaded gun nearby, who can't sleep for fear of things that go bump in the night if shooting them is a real option.

If my dog barks at night, I'm instantly awake. If I was to hear someone in the house, the first thing I would do is put a round or two in the ceiling. So shooting an intruder is a very real option, and I wouldn't have to be a fearful freak to make it happen.

If I owned a gun, that is. I do not, and never have. That makes me something of a freeloader off virtually all my neighbors, who do.

The tradeoff of which you speak (which to me is illusory, because you make a, to me, unjustifiable distinction between means in the face of an identical end) just does not exist, other than hypothetically.

There is no way to get to a gun-light culture that does not leave criminals as the sole possessors of guns: the cure, as Duck said, would be worse than the disease.

January 18, 2007 2:08 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Who knew being a Scot, aside from having some singularly off-putting ideas about cuisine, would be such a bad thing?

I think he is hiding his true identity. Aren't you, Monsieur Pierre Burnette?

January 18, 2007 2:43 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

No, although all my life I've had to deal with my name spelled "Brunet" most of the time.

I'm very, very proud of my Scottish heritage. Sort of the way American blacks are proud of their African heritage. As long as I don't have to actually meet the twits and am free to argue cricket and Darwinism with the far more civilized English, I'll happily attend a massed pipes show once a year. For the kids, you know.

January 18, 2007 4:48 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

I do view their motives, and their willingness to analyze knock-on effects, or look for contradictory evidence, with the same skepticism with which I would view an NRA funded study.

Yeah, well that's also a bit of an out for you materialists who insist on using science to base all our collective decisions on todismiss conclusions you don't like. I mean, it's fine to talk about "what works", but when everybody starts reserving the self-appointed right to claim bias from afar, the whole thing breaks down, because who is absolutely free of bias?

That's the great thing about the Commandments, Skipper. Not much room to accuse Him of hidden agendas.

January 18, 2007 5:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Should read "but to dismiss".

January 18, 2007 5:41 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Did you by any chance read this

Only after having done so, perhaps we can re-address the whole issue of bias.

January 18, 2007 9:07 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Hey Skipper

I didn't read the whole of the paper you linked to - but I did read quite a bit - including the date it was published - 1994. So I thought it might be interesting to see if the paper that started this discussion - which was published in 2007 - was guilty of the accusations in your paper. I luckily have access to Science Direct and could look at the Harvard paper itself rather than press releases.

1) Note that it is in a journal called Social Science and Medicine. In fact other titles in the same issue ranged across a number of social science matters.

2) Right in the introduction it refers to the fact there are some studies which support a link between gun ownership and homicide and others that don't. It includes both sets of references. Indeed that's one of the reasons for the study.

3) Although there are more references to medical journals than other types, there is extensive reference to other sources including

Journal of Quantitive Criminology.

Ciminal Justice Review

American Journal of Sociology

etc.

4) There is explicit discussion of the fact that correlation does not imply causation. i.e. it is not assumed that the presence of guns cause homicides.

5) There are several attempts to control for other variables such as urbanisation, deprivation, rate of other crimes such as robbery and aggravated assault, alcohol consumption. The link is still there even after allowing for these factors.

This is a thoroughly professional paper by professional statisticians that avoids get into political conjecture. It says nothing about policy implications of the study.

A couple of other illusions that seem to have crept into the discussion.

- Suicides don't come into the paper. It only looks at homicides.

- There is no attempt to cluster states together into quadrants or other larger areas. Each state is a data point itself. The only clustering is in census areas to determine if there is a broad geographical trend which might be a confounding factor.

Of course, this is only one paper, but it might be worth the Tennessee Law Review doing another study after 13 years :-)

January 18, 2007 10:51 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

A quick postscript.

You said:

"BTW, Just as a matter of style, there is a word for children, women and men: people. And there is a word for the kind of writing this snippet embodies: pompous."

As well as looking at overall homicide rates the paper also looks at homicide rates among men, women and children. I think that puts the sentence in context.

Nothing like reading the paper - but actually you didn't have to do that - the
abstract
which is publically viewable - makes that fairly clear.

January 18, 2007 11:45 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper:

Au contraire. There are states in the US which allow concealed carry, given a background check and a minimal amount of training.

But do many people really take advantage of this extreme laissez-faire attitude? Who are they, and why do they do it and is it considered normal behaviour?

It all sounds a bit Travis Bickle.

If my dog barks at night, I'm instantly awake. If I was to hear someone in the house, the first thing I would do is put a round or two in the ceiling. So shooting an intruder is a very real option, and I wouldn't have to be a fearful freak to make it happen.

If I owned a gun, that is. I do not, and never have.


I live in urban Britain, in a less than salubrious city centre area, and I sleep like a log. Last night half the fence in the back garden blew off in the storm, and I didn't hear a damn thing.

January 19, 2007 1:04 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Mark:

Excellent points, all to your credit.

Clearly my objections to this particular paper are at least somewhat overheated, particularly in the area of overt, entering bias.

At the end of it, though, I am still left with the lingering question:

"Yes, and your point would be?"

Kind of like someone doing a study that shows gravity makes grand pianos heavy. Unless one has a way of getting rid of gravity ...

Brit:

I'm sure there are some numbers out there for the number of people with concealed carry permits, but I haven't taken the time to research them.

What seems clear, though, is that despite hysterical insistence a bloodbath would follow, there is sufficient impression of additional risk to have dampened crime rates in concealed carry states.

(All caveats acknowledged, but roughly 10% of US passenger airline pilots flying domestic routes carry concealed weapons on the flight deck.)

My dog, a Golden Retriever, almost never barks; the only time he does is if someone he doesn't recognize approaches the door.

Since the click of my clock radio turning on in the morning is sufficient to make me fully awake, I would have no trouble availing myself of a gun.

If I owned one, that is.

January 19, 2007 9:22 PM  

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