Banning guns: the Australian experience

by John Quiggin on December 29, 2012

The re-emergence of gun control as an issue in the US has led to a fair bit of discussion of Australian experience. As is now normal on any issue, the political right has relied on Fox News factoids bearing no relation to the truth. But even for those seeking accurate information, it hasn’t been easy. AFAIK, there is no good place to go for an accurate summary of an issue that evolved in Australia over several decades. So, I’ll offer my own, based largely on recollection but with links where I can find them.

Although Australia has never had a gun culture on the scale of that in the US, gun ownership was widespread, with semi-automatic weapons becoming common in the 1970s and 1980s. There was also a vocal and effective gun lobby. Its first big win was in the 1988 New South Wales state election. The incumbent Labor Premier, who faced a likely defeat, rushed some restrictive gun laws through. The move was seen as opportunistic, and provoked a sharp backlash from pro-gun rural voters. This produced a perception, particularly on the conservative side of politics, that gun control was too dangerous to tackle. Despite a series of massacres, and rising rates of gun suicide, that perception endured until 1996 and the Port Arthur massacre.

The newly-elected conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, took a risk and pushed for nationwide legislation banning most semi-automatic weapons, and restricting gun ownership more generally. The package included a buyback of guns, on fairly generous terms, and tighter restrictions on gun ownership in general. Over subsequent years there has been some back and forth movement. The gun lobby, which has organized itself into a political party in some states, has nibbled away at restrictions whenever possible (their latest success was a proposal by the New South Wales state government, which needs their support, to allow hunting in national parks). On the other hand, as shooting incidents have exposed weaknesses in the law, they have been tightened up.

An important point, relevant to the US debate, is that the laws on semi-automatics worked without any real enforcement effort. I don’t think this is because Australians are more law-abiding than Americans. Weapons like these are very hard to conceal, so anyone who just ignores the law is taking a big risk – a disgruntled family member could turn you in, for example, or your house or car could be searched for some other reason. On the other hand, since much of the benefit of owning these weapons comes from showing them off, there’s not much benefit in having one concealed carefully enough to escape a search. It’s hard to figure out the thinking of the kind of person who commits a massacre, but apparently it doesn’t involve the years of advanced planning needed to acquire and conceal semi-automatics.

By contrast, although handgun ownership is tightly limited, criminals still have access to them, and they are used reasonably regularly in feuds between and within criminal gangs, though the numbers of such incidents are tiny by comparison with the US. Again, that’s not surprising, since handguns are much easier to conceal.

Coming to the results, Australia had fairly regular gun massacres before 1996. On the criterion of more than four deaths, there haven’t been any since. More generally, both gun homicides and gun suicides have declined substantially. But, as the career of John Lott has shown, with a finite data set, it’s always possible to find a statistical test that gives the answers you want. Lott’s counterparts in Australia are Jeanine Baker and Samara McPhedran, academics who are also active in the gun lobby. They make much of the point that gun deaths were declining before the ban, and have produced a series of papers claiming no significant effect. By contrast, suicides among young men nearly tripled over the decades leading up to the ban, and have declined since. In this case, Baker and McPhedran ignore the trend, and focus on an increase in suicides by hanging, which partially offset the decline in gun suicides. Their work is more thoroughly demolished here.

To sum up, gun control worked reasonably well, but not perfectly in Australia. The same would probably be true of the US.

{ 100 comments }

1

Watson Ladd 12.29.12 at 2:42 am

Fluoxetine was also introduced in 1987 in the US. This has had a major impact on the treatment of depression, and so attributing a decline in suicide to other factors would require examining across populations. We could also say that semiautomatics caused congestive heart failure by the same measure.

2

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 3:09 am

I would quibble about whether John Howard “took a risk” in 1996: his measures proved popular, and I suspect he knew they would be. Even his infamous decision to wear a flak jacket to a meeting with gun owners was, I suspect, a deliberate PR decision. But he did the right thing, and it’s nice to see that everyone agreed with him at the time.

One criticism I have heard of the laws (primarily by gun nuts) is that they didn’t actually affect the gun that was used in the Port Arthur massacre, and I think I’ve also heard them derided for being based on “cosmetic” features of guns. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the laws clearly had a quantifiable effect: about 60000 guns were taken out of circulation. The more the merrier…

3

MountainMan 12.29.12 at 3:14 am

While Samara McPhedran and Jeanine Baker are connected to the gun lobby, it is disingenuous to paint all their detractors as neutral parties. Their longtime publishing feud has been with Simon Chapman, a gun control lobbyist, and many of his close colleagues.

Though you claim that Baker and McPhedran’s findings were “thoroughly demolished” by Neill and Leigh in 2007, a more recent paper by Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi disagrees. Here’s the abstract of their 2008 paper, titled The Australian Firearms Buyback and Its Effect on Gun Deaths:

The 1996-97 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) in Australia introduced strict gun
laws, primarily as a reaction to the mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996,
where 35 people were killed. Despite the fact that several researchers using the same
data have examined the impact of the NFA on firearm deaths, a consensus does not
appear to have been reached. In this paper, we re-analyze the same data on firearm
deaths used in previous research, using tests for unknown structural breaks as a means
to identifying impacts of the NFA. The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did
not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.

4

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 3:17 am

Watson Ladd, the role of fluoxetine in suicide is discussed in this PLOS Medicine article, and suggests that the effect of floxetine in reducing suicide rates was small and observed primarily in women. I wonder why it was not observed in men? Either it’s because fluoxetine doesn’t work on men, or because men’s suicide mechanisms are more likely to be successful on the first try. Taking away guns reduces the effectiveness of suicide attempts, giving the fluoxetine more opportunities to work – this could explain why other suicide forms don’t replace shooting in the Australian data series.

5

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 3:21 am

MountainMan, I thought we went over this in the last thread: that structural breaks paper doesn’t use the correct methods, because you can’t use ARIMA or sum-of-squares methods on count data.

6

anthony 12.29.12 at 3:32 am

“On the other hand, since much of the benefit of owning these weapons comes from showing them off, ”

I can’t begin to say how true this is.

7

Bruce Wilder 12.29.12 at 3:34 am

Watson does his usual yeoman’s job, erasing all possibility of human knowledge.

That said, I wonder, sometimes, whether a course in social science, probability, and statistics has to entail a frontal lobotomy, or if that’s just a bonus to give employment opportunities at Heritage. My interest in this question is far from academic, having arrived at an age where a diagnosis, say, of cancer, may put treatment and prognosis perilously on just how many in my cohort, however whimsically defined, have already died.
I am suspicious of trends given the power of Sui Generis cause. Surely, some something can be identified which “caused” this beneficent trend prior to Howard’s policy intervention. Lead poisoning? Give me something!

8

Bruce Wilder 12.29.12 at 3:40 am

Should I abandon capitalization of proper names beginning with my own? I am apparently keeping bad company.

9

John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 3:53 am

Also worth saying that, unlike Baker and McPhedran, and absolutely unlike Lott, Andrew Leigh has a track record of publishing results that don’t fit his political views (he’s now a Labor MP). Notably, he found negative results on the inequality-health relationship posited in The Spirit Level.

On this point, it would be a fascinating exercise in statistical theory to work out the likelihood that, even assuming Lott was right on every topic he has studied, that the data would invariably come out the right way for him, as has happened in every piece of his published research I’m aware of.

10

John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 3:54 am

@faustusnotes: The “cosmetic” features stuff is just restatement of US talking points. I’ve seen the Oz gun lobby make the opposite claim, that only a minority of the semi-automatics surrendered in Australia had military-style cosmetic features. But the key attraction of these weapons is the ability to fire lots of rounds in quick succession, and there’s nothing cosmetic about that.

11

MountainMan 12.29.12 at 4:31 am

@John Quiggin(9):
What about Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi? Do you think they’re hopelessly biased too?

But really, you’re fooling yourself if you think that the papers you linked to are neutral. Here’s an email from Christine Neill, the author of the paper you submitted, and Simon Chapman, the gun control lobbyist, in which they coordinate efforts to get back at the “gun side”. She doubts she can get people to agree with her that “guns are evil” and that “we should restrict gun ownership”, but hopes that discrediting the Baker/McPhedran paper is “at least an argument I should be able to win. Maybe?”

The fact that she’s focusing on winning an argument for Chapman, and ends her email with a doubful “Maybe?” should make it clear that her paper is not some paragon of the scientific method.

12

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 4:37 am

Wow, MountainMan, you managed to misrepresent that email quite charmingly, didn’t you?

Meanwhile, you are going to continue to pretend that Lee and Suardi’s paper is all fine, and ignore any points to the contrary?

13

Alan 12.29.12 at 5:28 am

I wish that the US would learn from the Australian example, but I’m not sanguine.

One big problem here is that there are hundreds of millions of weapons already out there. Assault rifles are flying off the shelves now just because there is a preliminary public dialogue about gun control after Newtown. (A gun-shop owner interviewed on TV thanked Obama for the best Christmas sales ever.) We need to regulate their movement by strictly regulating or banning gun-shows. We need strict oversight on ammunition sales, which, if implemented with background checks (e.g.), might have an effect. (In a country that still requires prescriptions for oral birth-control it seems stupid that there is no similar concern about something that can take life so easily.) And clip magazines ought to be heavily regulated–the biggest reason these massacres occur is that reloading of semi-autos is quick using very large-capacity magazines. (Though there are plenty out there already too–and large-capacity clip sales are skyrocketing too.)

Looking back, clearly we are where we are in the US because military-inspired efficiencies in weapons seeped into consumer markets without any thought of long-termed effects. The quickly interchangeable clip I guess is the biggest factor, even more than simple and efficient semi-automatic firing mechanisms. I have a semi-auto .22 with a tube-loader. I can get off ten shots fast, but then I have to take out the spring-loader, tediously put in more cartridges, and replace the loader. No mass killing gun there (well–not of Newtown-level carnage at least).

So yes, we ought to go aggressively after military-style weapons. (A recent buy-back in L.A. netted something like 60k guns–a drop in the bucket but something at least.) But I think we need to go after ammunition. The NRA dismissively and irrelevantly likes to say that the gun is just a tool–but it is like a hammer in one important way: just a heavy piece of metal without a nail.

14

Doctor Memory 12.29.12 at 5:37 am

Indeed, at this point going after the ammo seems like the only viable path in the near to medium term. A $200/bullet excise tax charged against the manufacturers (refundable for military/police sale, presumably) seems like it would be a good start.

15

Doctor Memory 12.29.12 at 5:52 am

Actually, Mr. Quiggin, I’m curious: did the Australian government implement any particular controls/taxes on ammunition sales, or were all efforts directed at the guns themselves?

16

John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 6:30 am

Only licensed gun owners can buy ammunition, and there are limits on how much can be purchased in a given period. There are current attempts to tighten the law, which the gun lobby is resisting.

17

John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 6:31 am

BTW, MountainMan, you wouldn’t be another incarnation of dogz, mugwump, libertarian etc, would you? Just asking.

18

Peter T 12.29.12 at 6:33 am

Australian gun laws are pretty comprehensive. the ones I know are that ammo buys are registered, guns and owners are registered, guns must be secured in a safe in a locked room, with bolt and ammo separately secured, all guns imported for sale (effectively all guns) are held by Customs and released to the purchaser only after checks have been made on registration.

Disassembled guns still get through and, as JQ notes, criminals still manage to get their hands on guns, but they are becoming very rare outside those with a good reason to own one (primarily farmers).

BTW, IIRC there have been several amnesties, each of which took more guns out of circulation.

19

loren 12.29.12 at 6:55 am

“The fact that she’s focusing on winning an argument for Chapman, and ends her email with a doubful “Maybe?” should make it clear that her paper is not some paragon of the scientific method.”

Wow. Did you actually read the paper, MountainMan? I’m guessing not. As faustusnotes correctly observes, you managed, in such a short passage, to mangle the meaning and implications of that email dramatically. Just … wow.

As it turns out, Christine is a good friend and colleague, so I can vouch for her considerable talents as a quantitative researcher, and her unfailing objectivity as a scientist.

But don’t take my word for it: read the peer-reviewed research she has published.

20

Meredith 12.29.12 at 7:12 am

Then there’s this (people who buy guns for others: illegal, but rarely caught):

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/28/dawn-nguyen-arrested_n_2377285.html

Which I cite only to point out how big the US is, how complicated our situation is because states and federal laws intersect in ways that I don’t think the Australian example helps with, but maybe a little (or a lot, as inspiration, but only a little, in practical ways).

Not to mention — well, I can’t mention the specifics because I cannot remember the damned source. But I can just claim: here in Massachusetts, with its strict gun laws and all, tax advantages still go to Smith & Weston in Springfield (a very depressed city in our fair commonwealth, so this does provide skilled working class JOBS — oh, how we get played).

The plutocrats play us with guns. That’s the way to examine all this. For them, the more the merrier.

I have not given up. Just saying that this is going to be long and hard.

21

Meredith 12.29.12 at 7:20 am

Okay, not my own original source, but this should do for Smith & Weston and the tax advantage and jobs gambit:

http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/12/smith_wesson_to_save_6_million.html

22

ponce 12.29.12 at 7:38 am

@13

“One big problem here is that there are hundreds of millions of weapons already out there. Assault rifles are flying off the shelves now…”

I don’t see why this is a problem.

The U.S. didn’t reimburse slaveowners for the slaves it liberated.

It shouldn’t have to reimburse anyone for confiscated assault rifles.

23

bad Jim 12.29.12 at 7:54 am

It might not be misguided to focus on the cosmetic aspects of weapons. Something that looks like a military assault weapon practically begs to be used as designed, to kill lots of people very quickly. We don’t actually allow people to do that, at least at home, so the only permissible purpose served in the manufacture and purchase of these guns is fantasy fulfillment.

24

Andreas Moser 12.29.12 at 8:07 am

But wait until some Americans will get on a boat, go to Australia and go on a shooting spree there.

25

bad Jim 12.29.12 at 8:17 am

Permit me to clarify two points. Donald Norman emphasized the notion of “affordances” in his book “The Design of Everyday Things”. A flat panel affords pushing while a handle affords pulling; doors wouldn’t needed to be labeled “Push” or “Pull” if they only afforded the appropriate action.

An assault weapon affords mass killing. That’s its purpose and its appeal.

A 5.65 mm semi-automatic rifle isn’t meant for hunting. It doesn’t have the range or stopping power for deer. It could be used for small game or against pests (“varmints”), but there are better guns for those purposes.

26

mojrim 12.29.12 at 8:35 am

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704353/

Please pay particular attention to Table 2.

27

Keir 12.29.12 at 8:58 am

20 – Australia is also a federal state.

28

John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 9:05 am

Australia is a federal state, but at least we have no significant gun manufacturing industry, which would certainly complicate things further.

OTOH, we used to have a tobacco industry, heavily subsidised, and we managed to buy them out, so I expect we could do the same thing with guns.

As regards cost, buying every gun in the US at $1000 apiece would cost less than the annual defence budget and would certainly do more for the safety of Americans.

29

Tim Worstall 12.29.12 at 9:42 am

“that the data would invariably come out the right way for him, as has happened in every piece of his published research I’m aware of.”

Not to even think about trying to defend Lott. But isn’t that Ben Goldacre’s criticism of, for example, pharma research? That only the papers showing “interesting” results get published.

And how many papers do get published, heck, how many get written, that refute the prior contentions of the author? Just to be absurd for a moment, I can’t imagine JQ publishing a paper that showed that state provided health care was less effective than purely market provided. Not that any less than tortured data set would produce such evidence, but I would rather assume that if that’s the way some data was going (and assuming that JQ was working on it) there’d be a fairly urgent search for a different data set. Or a decision simply not to pursue that line of research.

As to gun control in the US. My question is, OK, how? That Second Amendment does seem to be standing in the way rather. There would need to be either a change in the way the Supreme Court interprets it (not something amenable to political action in the short to medium term, it would be all about who gets to appoint the next generation of Supremes) or a change to that Second Amendment. That is amenable to political action. A supermajority of both Houses of Congress individually then 3/4 of states I think? And the most recent polling numbers I’ve seen show 50% or more of the citizenry actually wanting a relaxation of the current gun control laws.

This is nothing to do with whether there ought to be more gun control or not. I’m asking OK, assuming there should be, then how is it actually going to get enacted?

Disclosure of interest: over the years I’ve supplied Smith & Wesson with the metal to make their scandium/aluminium handguns. Everyone does indeed have their price but no, this hasn’t been a large enough revenue source to change my mind on anything at all.

30

Sancho 12.29.12 at 9:58 am

Gun control in the US isn’t really comparable to gun control in Australia because, as another poster mentioned above, America is already awash not only with guns – not to mention individuals and groups already stockpiling and hiding weapons in anticipation of a ban.

American gun control is a fun topic for conjecture, but ultimately we can only thank our lucky stars for living in a sane nation, and learn some macabre lessons from the never-ending US massacres.

31

Scott Martens 12.29.12 at 11:44 am

I saw a few days back Nouriel Roubani’s article in The Economist proposing that the US Second Amendment might be compatible with the requirement that gun owners carry mandatory liability insurance. Given that I don’t think logic plays a real part in the Supreme Court’s rulings on gun control, I don’t know how well this would fly, but it certainly doesn’t seem incompatible with any of its rulings to date. Turning mandatory insurance into a fairly comprehensive, intrusive, and expensive set of cost for gun owners seems pretty easy.

32

Theophylact 12.29.12 at 1:25 pm

ponce @ 22: There’s a pretty strong argument that if an agreement could have been reached on reimbursement, the US Civil War need not have been fought at all. The cost would surely have been less.

Confiscation of legally-owned property without compensation or due process is a no-no enshrined in the Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

33

mojrim 12.29.12 at 1:31 pm

I realized after posting the link @26 that it was authored by S Chapman, presumably the same Simon Chapman whose work is being debated here. Oops!

I encountered this study in a debate elsewhere, given in support of the efficacy of Australia’s arms removal program, but a reading of the data does not appear to support the purported conclusions. On Table 2 the hard data on homicides does not show a significant drop compared against the established rate of decline. Yes, a decade without mass killings, and a drop in gun homicides but not in the overall body count. What the data seem to show me (in Australia and elsewhere) is a lack of correlation between guns and murder.

Given that Americans hold the right of arms to be an individual one (more a result of the 14th Amed then the 2nd) the burden of proof for their restriction falls upon the party proposing it rather than the party resisting. So too for insurance and/or licensing schemes meant to be cost prohibitive; one would be tempted to regarded these as similar to poll taxes. This is to say nothing of the impracticality of confiscating 300 million firearms from a notoriously law-flouting population…

34

Mao Cheng Ji 12.29.12 at 2:32 pm

When you live in a high-gini, highly unequal society, you need to be able to defend your stuff. There are various methods – a police state, mass incarceration, segregation/apartheid – and, naturally, they will all be used, to one extent or another. But the personal gun ownership is the last line of defense, and it’s absolutely essential. You will never convince people in this society that they should surrender their guns to avoid an occasional massacre, some accidents, some suicides.

35

marek 12.29.12 at 2:41 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @34

I note without undue surprise that lowering the gini coefficient doesn’t make it on to the list of possible methods.

More generally, is there any actual evidence about the deterrent value of widespread gun ownership against property crime? Is there an identifiable group of people who would otherwise have a greater propensity to burglary, but who calculate the odds and turn to honest toil instead?

36

LFC 12.29.12 at 3:08 pm

Theophylact @32: The takings clause of 5th Am. refers to taking private property for public use (hence, e.g., eminent domain) — thus it wouldn’t seem to apply to a gun confiscation; and a buyback provision would be compensation anyway.

Tim Worstall @29, mojrim @33: Afaik, nothing in current U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence construing the Second Amendment or any other part of the Constitution would prevent an Australian-style ban on most semiautomatic weapons as described by JQ in the opening of his post. Contrary to what was claimed in a previous thread, semiautomatics do not equal virtually all guns.

On previous threads, I made the above point about the state of U.S. law more than once. No one said I was wrong or attempted to refute it. Instead it was simply ignored and people continued to write comments about the Second Amendment as an obstacle to a ban on semiautomatics. PLEASE SHOW THAT THE SECOND AMENDMENT, AS CURRENTLY INTERPRETED BY THE U.S. SUPREME COURT, PREVENTS A BAN ON (MOST) SEMIAUTOMATIC WEAPONS OR, IF YOU CAN’T SHOW THIS (AND I THINK YOU CAN’T), STOP MAKING THE CLAIM, EITHER EXPLICITLY OR BY IMPLICATION.

37

Mao Cheng Ji 12.29.12 at 3:17 pm

“is there any actual evidence about the deterrent value of widespread gun ownership against property crime?”

That is not important. If suburbanites feel that they need guns, they’ll have guns.

They may do like, however, the suggestion to make gun ownership more expensive, so that dangerous creatures of the underworld can’t afford them. But then, this is exactly how this proposal needs to be advertised. Guns for the responsible gun owners only. “Responsible” here being a euphemism for “suburban middle-class”.

38

SamChevre 12.29.12 at 3:17 pm

It’s my understanding (and if I’m wrong, I would welcome correction) that Australia had a well-established registration scheme for guns prior to 1996. Such a scheme makes confiscations much easier, and the Australian experience is frequently mentioned as a reason to oppose any registration scheme in the US.

And I continue to maintain that focusing on suicide methods will always make gun bans look effective, but the effect is much smaller if you look at suicides in total.

39

LFC 12.29.12 at 3:23 pm

@SamChevre
From the OP:
The newly-elected conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, took a risk and pushed for nationwide legislation banning most semi-automatic weapons, and restricting gun ownership more generally. The package included a buyback of guns, on fairly generous terms, and tighter restrictions on gun ownership in general.

So it wasn’t a confiscation scheme, it was a buyback scheme.

40

marek 12.29.12 at 3:27 pm

@37

“That is not important.”

On the contrary, it is very important in considering public policy options. There is rather an important difference between a rational belief and an irrational belief. I grant you that both can be very strong and that irrational beliefs are hard to shift, particularly in the short term, but there is nevertheless a big difference in what it makes sense to do in the two cases.

41

LFC 12.29.12 at 3:29 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji
What proportion of U.S. gun owners live in suburbs, and what proportion live in rural areas (including very small towns)? And is suburban gun ownership much higher in some parts of the country than others, and if so does that not suggest that the key factors might have to do with culture rather than felt need for protection? More concretely, why is someone living in a suburb of Dallas, e.g., more likely to own a gun than someone living in a suburb of Boston, e.g.?

42

bh 12.29.12 at 4:05 pm

MCJ,

Absolutely nothing you’re saying holds up empirically.

First, as LFC notes, there’s nothing like a universal “suburban” attitude towards gun laws. There’s a lot of regional variation, and on the coasts and in the upper midwest, a lot of suburban towns have extremely strict gun laws.

And taking a step back from your cartoon understanding of economic geography, there are a lot of wealthy and middle-class people in large American cities. Those people set the political agenda there as much as anywhere else. And with the exception of some places in the south, those elites — the people with stuff to ‘protect’ — have supported very strict (by American standards) gun laws.

You can also look across time to see that your argument doesn’t hold up. Murder rates and economic inequality have gone in opposite directions in recent decades. Just look at New York, home of our inequality engine the financial industry, with the lowest murder rate it’s seen in 50 years. I certainly don’t think there’s an inverse causal relationship there, but I’m also not sloppy enough to assert the opposite in the face of all evidence.

43

Scott 12.29.12 at 4:24 pm

LFC @36: PLEASE SHOW THAT THE SECOND AMENDMENT, AS CURRENTLY INTERPRETED BY THE U.S. SUPREME COURT, PREVENTS A BAN ON (MOST) SEMIAUTOMATIC WEAPONS

The Court invalidated a ban on handguns in Heller, and all five of the majority Justices continue to sit on the Court today. Although the Second Amendment expresses no right to bear handguns, the majority struck down the ban because handguns are “overwhelmingly chosen by American society for [the] lawful purpose [of self defence] … It is no answer to say … that it is permissible to ban the possession of handguns so long as the possession of other firearms … is allowed. It is enough to note … that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon.”: 554 US 570 at 628-629.

I suspect (although I’m unsure) that in the US, most handguns are semiautomatics, and most semiautomatics are handguns. It seems to follow that a ban on semiautomatic handguns is unconstitutional, although perhaps semiautomatic rifles could be banned. I’m not aware of any cases on that question.

44

mojrim 12.29.12 at 4:42 pm

@bh, LFC, marek: I think you are picking a little too finely at MHJ’s point, which is that in a system such as we have in the US, fear of having your stuff taken outweighs most other considerations. It does not have to be rational, and in such circumstances getting people to give up their guns is nearly impossible. I especially admire the way he threw in the implicit race and class angle, which lies at the inception of gun control schemes in the US.

Some years ago I read a study abstract which indicated an inverse relationship between the likelihood of being victimized and the fear of it.

What I have seen is that white, middle-class Americans are very fond of their fears, and are loath to surrender them. Some of them fear black kids from South Central driving out to Brentwood and raping their wife, so they want guns. Others fear school shootings in their otherwise protected enclave, so they want certain weapons banned. Still others fear the state will tax them into penury in order to feed “the other,” so they want bling-covered carbines to resist it. It’s all based on fear of abstract and extremely unlikely events, which in truth makes it more terrifying.
compensation.

45

Sebastian H 12.29.12 at 4:56 pm

I’m not a gun owner, nor do I care to be. But it is difficult to translate the Australian successes into the US.

Australia is parliamentary. This means that for good and ill it can react quickly to situations which might have a short term political/emotional effect. While not impossible in the US (see 9/11 security over reactions) it isn’t as easy.

Guns are much more prevalent in the US.

Guns are much more widely distributed in the US.

The US has a bill of rights gun amendment.

Different people want different things from gun control. If you only want so sort of high rate of fire gun control, Australia offers some hope. It will be harder to get done in the US, but not wholly implausible. If you want heavy restrictions on handguns you probably need to change the constitution and change the acceptance of gun culture. You might want to talk to Hollywood about that. Ban on penalty of jail time Hollywood depictions of gratuitous violence? I didn’t think so, though I suspect each Tarantino movie is likely to have a much bigger effect than any individual gun sale. You that serious about it?

46

novakant 12.29.12 at 5:32 pm

I suspect each Tarantino movie is likely to have a much bigger effect than any individual gun sale.

Tarantino has more fans worldwide than in the US, yet they don’t tend to go around shooting random people. US society is f@cked in many ways, but I really don’t think that’s Tarantino’s or Hollywood’s fault.

47

Theophylact 12.29.12 at 6:01 pm

LFC @ 39: What is there about “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” that you don’t understand? That’s not an eminent-domain clause.

48

Theophylact 12.29.12 at 6:07 pm

Compensated emancipation didn’t fly because the war was already so embittering. But it might have worked before Secession and Fort Sumter.

49

Uncle Kvetch 12.29.12 at 6:08 pm

Tarantino has more fans worldwide than in the US, yet they don’t tend to go around shooting random people.

Thank you for pointing this out, novakant. “Blame Hollywood” (or video games, or whatever) is just one more bullsh*t diversion tactic, no different from McBargle’s “maybe we can teach kids to rush and overpower a killer who’s firing an assault weapon at them.”

50

John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 6:48 pm

@SamChevre Gun registration was part of the 1996 reforms. Before that, gun owners were licensed, though getting a license was fairly easy.

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Matt 12.29.12 at 9:06 pm

How much of a push is there at a high level for a semiautomatic weapon ban in the USA? The boldest I’ve heard from a high level so far (and quite timid it is) is to revive the assault weapons ban of 1994. That would only ban sales of new assault rifles and high capacity magazines. It would leave handguns and most semiautomatic rifle models untouched. Units already in circulation would still be legal and would become uncommon only over a period of many decades.

Simply reviving the AWB is an underwhelming step toward reducing gun murders in America. According to the FBI’s 2011 statistics, murder by rifle accounted for 323 deaths and murder by all guns accounted for 8583 deaths. So, yay, a permanent AWB revival might very gradually reduce gun murders by up to 4%. It has turned into one of those weird little tempests where right wingers get hysterical over a triviality and Obama’s allies can pretend the triviality is serious business because of how angry it makes the opposition.

And while I’m venting about American gun stupidity (sorry to drop this in a thread about the Australian perspective)… You see conservatives pointing out that knives, gasoline, improvised explosives, and the like can all be used to kill people, so hey, no use regulating guns. But doesn’t this cut both ways when you’re justifying armaments as defense against government tyranny? If you think some deranged person could just as easily kill a room full of people with knives or homemade bombs as with guns, why can’t committed rebels fight just as well with bombs and knives when the jackboots start sending people to Obamacare camps? The truth is that guns are much more effective deadly weapons than anything else you’d find in an ordinary American household; this is a truth embraced with gusto when it comes to shooting agents of a tyrannical government or criminals invading your home, but evaded with great slipperiness when it comes to shooting anyone else.

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Barry 12.29.12 at 9:07 pm

Theophylact 12.29.12 at 6:07 pm

” Compensated emancipation didn’t fly because the war was already so embittering. But it might have worked before Secession and Fort Sumter.”

That’s just pulling a claim out of the air.

As Ta-Nesi Coates pointed out, slave owners in Delaware refused compensated emancipation, even when it was clear to everybody that (no matter how the Confederacy fared) Delaware was not going to remain a slave state in a non-slave United States. If slave owners in an island of slavery in a sea of freedom would take that attitude, slave owners in a region dominated by slavery would take an infinitely harder attitude – as they in fact did.

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Matt 12.29.12 at 9:09 pm

I should have re-read the text of the AWB before I posted about it. The AWB regulated handguns and shotguns as well as rifles, but again it affected only a minority of those weapon models. Handguns, including most semiautomatic handguns, remained legal to produce and sell when the AWB was in effect.

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Chaz 12.29.12 at 9:17 pm

47: “LFC @ 39: What is there about “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” that you don’t understand? That’s not an eminent-domain clause.”

I believe you are the one who does not understand it. If Congress passes a law banning something, and the executive branch (or local gov’t police) and judiciary enforce that law, then that is due process. Due process is a check on the executive: it means you can’t be imprisoned or deprived of property without a trial.

I’m not sure if you’re entitled to a trial to stop the confiscation of obviously illegal items, because those are not lawfully held property. Maybe you could sue in civil court and say your gun (or meth) was actually a crossbow (aspirin) or something. You would certainly be entitled to a trial to determine whether you illegally possessed guns (meth) and how long you should spend in prison for that.

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Bruce Wilder 12.29.12 at 9:21 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @34, @37 & bh, LFC, marek, mojrim

The controversy over gun control in the U.S. maps a little too cleanly over what is sometimes called “political polarization” for me to dismiss MCJ’s observation about gini coefficients. The NRA is not only (unofficially) partisan, but it is highly active in the Faux News / Rush Limbaugh creation of an imagined parallel universe, where Obama is a socialist . . . a socialist gun-grabber. And, many of their arguments for how to deal with guns and gun violence (arm the teachers! the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!) belong to that bizarro-world alternative universe.

Unreasoned and unreasonable fears are ginned up by the right-wing noise machine to provide political protection for the banksters and CEOs and Walmart heirs and their billions of stolen loot.

If gun control comes in this political context, it will come at a time and in a form that is consistent with a plan for protecting the rich from “the 47%” of Mitt Romney’s imagination.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.29.12 at 10:19 pm

@51 ” You see conservatives pointing out that knives, gasoline, improvised explosives, and the like can all be used to kill people, so hey, no use regulating guns.”

Actually, if I am not mistaken, ammonium nitrate is heavily regulated. On the federal level. Sales, transfers, poof of legitimate use, records keeping, reporting theft and suspicious activity, the whole nine yards.

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peterv 12.29.12 at 10:19 pm

JQ: To what extent were the new anti-gun laws that John Howard pushed for laws of the Commonwealth rather than laws of the various States and Territories? Australia is, like the USA, a federation but co-ordinating uniform legal change across 1 federal domain, 6 states, and 2 territories is a lot easier than doing it for 1 + 50 + 5.

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ponce 12.29.12 at 10:20 pm

@55

The parallel universe lost the last election.

Now we just have to wait for one of the gun fondling justices on the supreme court to retire…

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John Quiggin 12.29.12 at 11:14 pm

@peterv Primarily state laws, with some supporting Federal legislation.

On the broader point, we have a formal institution, the Council of Australian Governments (known if not loved by the acronym COAG) which deals with harmonizing legislation and so on. And because the states are financially dependent on grants from the Commonwealth, the central government gets its way more than in the US.

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Theophylact 12.29.12 at 11:27 pm

Barry@ 52: So you’re making the (to me not at all unjustifiable) claim that the Civil War wasn’t at all about money. So what was the issue? “States Rights”? But the only right in serious question was the right to own slaves, and if compensation wouldn’t have dealt with that, what would?

Are you saying that the real issue at stake was white supremacy, pure and simple? I’ll buy that. But then the gun issue is also a struggle over an indefensible right: the right to overthrow the government by force, pure and simple; and compensation for slaves/guns will placate nobody.

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DrDick 12.29.12 at 11:53 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 56 -

Very true, as are fully automatic weapons (since the 1930s), rocket launchers, RPGs, and the like. There does not seem to be any problem with regulating them quite effectively (and the Second Amendment is obviously no barrier to regulating firearms).

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Matt 12.30.12 at 12:10 am

Actually, if I am not mistaken, ammonium nitrate is heavily regulated. On the federal level. Sales, transfers, poof of legitimate use, records keeping, reporting theft and suspicious activity, the whole nine yards.

Current controls are aimed at large-scale users and distributors. As of 5 years ago I was able to buy an 80 pound sack with cash and without showing any ID. You don’t need to prove you need it for anything in particular. Regulations proposed last year would track sales more closely but exempt quantities under 25 pounds, which is still enough for some pretty serious mayhem.

Ammonium nitrate isn’t the only path to improvised bombs. You can make an explosive like that used in the 2002 Bali bombings starting from salt, water, electricity, and aluminum foil. Of course this is more time consuming and inconvenient than buying sacks of ammonium nitrate, just as weaponizing AN fertilizer is more time consuming and inconvenient than buying a gun and ammunition. You can’t stop MacGyver’s evil twin brother, but regulation can make killing a lot less convenient for everyone who isn’t a genius of improvisation. Everyone who’s yearning to water the tree of liberty with their guns and a few good tyrants understands that, but tactically they play dumb about how killing with guns could possibly be easier or more common than with scissors or baseball bats.

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Bruce Wilder 12.30.12 at 12:31 am

@58

Not in the alternate universe

(And the plutocracy won, even in actual reality)

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LFC 12.30.12 at 1:30 am

Scott @43 – thanks for the quote from Heller. Obvs. I shd read the opinion one of these days.

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ponce 12.30.12 at 1:50 am

@63

I’m not so sure about that.

The Fox News universe dwellers I know seem quite crushed by the election.

The combination of two terms of Bush followed by two terms of Obama has forced them to come back to reality.

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Salty25479217 12.30.12 at 3:19 am

Australians take courses in genius of improvisation, I think, so it’s a promising start to knowing; a cheery graph, but with no 0 on the free axis index (firearm death rate.) Pretty in itself. Also, why don’t my local shows rags carry bits from Injuryprevention.BMJ.com as interstitial matter? 7 pages of coded jargon on bike helmets in wine country at a time…

It is pretty awesome every time someone comes around with 40 scissors and does not end up with 26 scratches of grave seriousness (even if it’s a Montessori where lots of kids tried to be very serious, about the snowflakes and themselves.) Parasympathetic impulsivity and automated madness, ever forward; but with less mortality. Iron rounds filled with powdered ginseng, kinetic bullets, carbon devices and mineral rounds, tags of all sorts and sensors, bridge deicing rounds: a force with grammar has fewer reactionaries and firmer triggers for violence.

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Andrew F. 12.30.12 at 4:16 am

Frankly, I would settle for a nationwide implementation of a one-handgun-per-month limit on legal purchases by non dealers (states and localities can continue to legislate and enforce laws much tougher than that limit, of course). A very large percentage of handguns used in crimes in New York City (tough gun control laws; very aggressive enforcement, aided by liberal use of stop-and-frisks) originates in mass purchases in states like Georgia and Alabama (loose gun control laws).

If that supply could be squeezed shut, it would be an enormous step forward in reducing the availability of firearms for use in violent crimes. Unfortunately, one-handgun-a-month is too drastic (!) a measure for the NRA, and I believe only a small number of states currently have such a law.

My sense is that this is the sort of law on which the administration should focus. It’s a law that can have a dramatic effect on the availability of firearms for use in violent crimes; it’s a law which the NRA (somehow) looks even more ridiculous in opposing; it’s a law that provides space for a belief in the value of legal gun ownership, potentially enabling compromise from the less nutty of the gun-rights crowd; and it’s a law that focuses on the most pressing feature of America’s gun problem.

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Doctor Memory 12.30.12 at 5:30 am

Confidential to Salty25479217: there is a fine line between cleverness and sounding like a markov bot. I applaud the fine form of your leap over it, but strongly advise declaring victory and strategically retreating.

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Meredith 12.30.12 at 6:38 am

I so utterly take it for granted that we in the US absolutely must figure out ways (it’ll be much harder than many non-Americans seem to appreciate, for lots of reasons, legal, social, political, that are hard to see from the outside, apparently) to drastically restrict gun ownership (all kinds need restriction), magazine types, all that — and I have felt this way for so long, and worked for it, and lived through so many of these arguments so many times (I am over 60, a teenager when Kennedy was shot, then MLK, then another Kennedy, not to mention Malcolm X, not to mention the lack of protection from the state/police available to many citizens, especially black citizens; but also gang violence, especially among inner city minorities, guns turned on ourselves), that I cannot summon up the energy now to establish for strangers the platform from which I speak what I am about to say.

I have a weird sympathy, or at least understanding, for a lot of the “gun nuts.” Certainly for those whose fear isn’t simply paranoid fantasy fanned by Fox (thanks a lot, Australia, for Rupert Murdoch! though on guns, he may prove to be an unexpected ally) and by the plutocrats who benefit in many ways (not just through guns) by the crisis-mentality they promote on every front.

A commenter much earlier referred to — all Americans? or just the gun-toting types? (I wasn’t sure the intended scope of the reference) — as not law-abiding. I balked at that characterization. I am pretty sure that we Americans (even most of the gun-toting types) are an unusually law-abiding lot. (Hell, we hardly cheat on taxes compared to taxpayers in other countries.) Well, however law-abiding we may be, in comparison to whom by what standard I don’t even know, is a ridiculously hard question to take up seriously here, so let me put it another way. Think of the appeal to lots and lots of Americans of Clinton’s “work hard and play by the rules” line. I appreciate that appeal. But I also balk at it. The police, the state, various institutions of the community, are not always the instruments of opportunity and protection they are supposed to be. Or even when they are all that, in some nice bourgeois way (and I don’t use the word “bourgeois” with scorn), they can be stultifying in other ways. Something in me — and maybe this is very American? — appreciates a little “fuck you” to authority, to convention. (Tocqueville identified this pretty well, actually — or at least, he well identified what must be resisted.) Even as I devote myself to our constitution and its attendant texts and procedures. (I think I like our constitution BECAUSE it respects my inclination to resist and protest.)

I would have thought Australians shared all that with Americans (US). Maybe I’m too influenced by stuff like Crocodile Dundee (or, to cite a movie I really love, When My Voice Broke). But while using movies: think the Coen brothers. There’s O, Brother Where Are Thou? The upside of what I am describing is emphasized there. But then there’s also No Country for Old Men. Fargo fits in there somewhere (more the No Country side, I think.) My suggestion: watch those three movies and then talk about guns in the US. Note (as I am just now doing) that the Coen brothers go to the middle which constitute the edges; they don’t take up California or New York. Interesting.

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faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 6:51 am

I saw these pictures from the UK about a week ago and found myself thinking, jeez wouldn’t it be great if that lot were armed.

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Teafortwo 12.30.12 at 9:42 am

@70 Indeed.

Another story that could have ended very differently given different gun control laws:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/dec/24/man-arrested-attacking-samurai-sword

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Emma in Sydney 12.30.12 at 9:54 am

JQ @ 59, we also have the advantage that residual powers, ( those not specified in our constitution) belong to the federal government, where in the States they belong to the states. Or at least that’s my memory from Pol SCi 1 at ANU circa 1980.

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Tim Worstall 12.30.12 at 10:24 am

” Compensated emancipation didn’t fly because the war was already so embittering. But it might have worked before Secession and Fort Sumter.”

Compensated emancipation was the British Empire method wasn’t it? Although I’m not entirely sure whether the compensation was ever paid.

What was the difference between say, Jamaica and Mississippi (both slave plantation economies) that made it work or be possible in one and not the other?

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Shamash 12.30.12 at 2:05 pm

To BadJim:
“An assault weapon affords mass killing. That’s its purpose and its appeal.”

At least in the US, a civilian firearm has one in several thousand chance of being used against a person (varying on the type of weapon, years in circulation and nature of the crime). So if killing is the purpose of a gun, civilian-owned guns do a piss-poor job of it. What something is designed to do and what it actually does are two different things. Alcohol was not designed to cause thousands of drunk driving deaths per year, but it does this nonetheless.

A 5.65 mm semi-automatic rifle isn’t meant for hunting. It doesn’t have the range or stopping power for deer.

To the best of my knowledge, no one in the world makes a 5.65mm rifle cartridge. I’ll assume that is a typo rather than poor knowledge. However, the 5.56mm cartridge does meet the minimum energy requirements for deer hunting in many US states.

When I tell people that knowledge of an issue is useful, even if you have no attraction to that issue, posts like this are a mild example of the reason. I am fundamentally unable to have an abortion, but I would not opine on the issue unless I had my facts in order first.

People, whether pro-gun or anti-gun, should do the same.

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faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 3:02 pm

Shamash, the “5.56 mm rifles don’t work on deer” meme is a favourite of the pro-gun lobby. Are you saying they’re all wrong?

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Shamash 12.30.12 at 5:25 pm

If the 5.56mm is sufficient to kill a 90kg human, is there any reason it would not work on a 90kg whitetail deer (which would be a rather large one). I have never used a 5.56mm to take deer, but I have used the .222 Magnum, which is virtually identical from a ballistic standpoint.

Most hunters I know choose not to use the 5.56mm because it is at the low end of the energy range, especially considering the range at which some people shoot. I would have no hesitation taking a 200 meter shot with a .308 Winchester, but as a conscientious and knowledgeable hunter, I would probably not take such a shot with the 5.56mm or equivalent, since it would have lost upwards of 40% of its energy by that point. Just fine for incapacitating a person I suppose, but not for a clean kill on a deer.

I do not know why the pro-gun lobby would use the meme you stated. A quick web search showed comments from both pro-gun and anti-gun sides regarding it. I admit ignorance as to why it would be an effective statement for either side of the issue. The 5.56mm is perfectly acceptable and accurate for hunting, it is just at the lower end of the scale for medium game, especially at longer range.

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faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 5:30 pm

shamash, just check the threads hereabouts in the last week. Lots of gun nuts make this claim. You now, upon elaborating, find yourself agreeing with comments above that game hunting and human hunting have different parameters. It appears you have schooled yourself.

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mojrim 12.30.12 at 6:11 pm

@faustusnotes, Shamash: Let’s dispense with the idea of hunting altogether. It’s not important to the gun control debate in America and just serves to derail the discussion.

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Shamash 12.30.12 at 6:45 pm

True enough. Thank you for getting me back on track. My main point is that being informed is better than being uninformed, and secondarily that specific information and definitions are necessary if one is to debate, offer suggestions to lawmakers or craft legislation on an issue. This is independent of whether one is pro- or con- on the issue. Agree or not?

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Meredith 12.30.12 at 11:08 pm

On the hunting issue. A clean kill is imperative. No one wants some wounded deer disappearing into the woods to die slowly and in pain.

But at what distances does it make sense to set up the hunter for a clean kill? I’m thinking right now of two things.

My brother’s family in deeply rural Maine in the 70’s and 80’s, despite posted land all around them, had to worry through every deer season about bullets flying around their house, with young children out playing, my brother working in the woods, my sister-in-law near the children. Because of these super high-powered guns, bullets being shot by unseen hunters (so-called) hundreds of yards a way.

By contrast, a friend of my daughter’s from rural Vermont, who would spend many many hours every summer and early fall in the woods, up in trees and elsewhere, sitting and sitting, waiting, quietly quietly, getting to know the deer’s habits, so he could position himself properly come hunting season in late fall for a kill that would be clean because he would be waiting (maybe for hours and hours) in the right place and could take his shot from much closer.

Just saying that these incredibly high powered weapons have transformed hunting into something unrecognizable to what I would call serious, or even true, hunters.

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john c. halasz 12.31.12 at 12:01 am

@80:

Yep.

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Consumatopia 12.31.12 at 12:16 am

At least in the US, a civilian firearm has one in several thousand chance of being used against a person (varying on the type of weapon, years in circulation and nature of the crime). So if killing is the purpose of a gun, civilian-owned guns do a piss-poor job of it. What something is designed to do and what it actually does are two different things.

I believe bad Jim’s point was that the purpose and appeal of these weapons was to afford mass killing. People buy them because they could be used for mass killing, even though only a few are sufficiently crazy to actually employ them for what they were designed for.

My main point is that being informed is better than being uninformed, and secondarily that specific information and definitions are necessary if one is to debate, offer suggestions to lawmakers or craft legislation on an issue. This is independent of whether one is pro- or con- on the issue. Agree or not?

If the claim is that whoever knows the most arbitrary facts about guns therefore has the most legitimate opinion, then no, that’s nonsense. Disagree. (Although if I did agree, I would have to note that in neither of these threads did the pro-gun side come out ahead).

Everyone, gun owners and non-owners, is a stakeholder in this issue. (Anyone could be shot). Everyone is free to express their concerns and interests in this issue, and should be encouraged to do so.

That’s not to say that policy should be written without caring about actual gun facts. If you know some specific piece of gun knowledge that leads you to think a piece of legislation will either be ineffective or hinder some appropriate use for firearms, by all means share it. Then I can consider that information and take it into account when deciding what policy I should support. That’s a very important process–there are a lot of possible ways we could regulate guns, it’s important that the method we chose would actually accomplish our goals.

But we don’t all need to be obsessed gun nuts before we can even enter the argument–the argument itself can serve to inform us for the relevant facts. And while I suppose it’s useful to correct minor errors like bad Jim’s apparent typo, they don’t seem to have policy relevance. So far, your intention doesn’t seem to be to correct any policy conclusions anyone has made, but to disqualify people from participating.

To take abortion as an example, if someone believe that personhood begins at conception and all abortion represents the murder of children, if they got some detail of late term abortion procedure wrong that wouldn’t invalidate the rest of their opinion. (Abortion and guns, of course, are not parallel–any of us in this thread could be shot, none of us could be aborted.)

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Leinad 12.31.12 at 12:16 am

faustusnotes @2

I think Howard definitely took a risk, the One Nation backlash was well and truly on by that stage and gun restrictions undoubtably poured more oil on that fire. Had they been a slightly less shambolic enterprise there could have been serious consequences for the National Party. As well, the 1998 election was a nail-biter, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to see a Coalition defeat being blamed in part on measures like gun control and a subsequent conservative re-alignment towards the hard right.

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Andrew F. 12.31.12 at 2:13 am

W/r/t the focus of some on the technical specifications of firearms:

More charitably, in many communities knowing how to maintain and operate a firearm is viewed as important, and entrance into any discussion on firearms is aided by a demonstration of said knowledge, regardless of the actual relevance of such knowledge to the discussion. Firearms in such communities are objects of importance, and an individual unable to show knowledge of, and appreciation for, such objects will not be viewed as credible. This is why politicians, when speaking to such communities, instinctively reach for hunting and shooting anecdotes of varying veracity.

Less charitably, the emphasis on the technical specifications of various firearms is one way that gun rights proponents reaffirm for themselves the comforting narrative that gun control proponents are naive individuals who don’t know much about guns, are scared of guns, and who consequently prescribe ineffective policies like gun control. This is why the technical specifications introduced are often irrelevant to the discussion.

Even less charitably, the NRA has long, long practice with the technique of focusing on each small technical detail of any firearm being considered for additional control (or ban), and then using small technical differences to shape the contours of the negotiations. This is why it’s a mistake to allow such matters to define an issue. It’s also one of the weak points of an “assault weapons” ban – definitional matters are easy to press upon.

W/r/t gun control in the US:

For political reasons, gun control on the order of that achieved in some countries will not be implemented in the US on a national level any time in the next decade – though that’s no reason to not argue for it as the best policy, and no reason to stop efforts to persuade others. I think the post is effective in that respect.

But it’s worth focusing attention on second-best policies as well, and in particular on policies that are reasonably achievable in the next 10 years. Because the larger public, voters, and elected officials have limited resources, and because opportunities for movement on a given issue can open and close quickly, second-best policies will need some order of prioritization to maximize the chance of achieving the most effective of them.

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Shamash 12.31.12 at 2:30 am

Consumatopia:
Good points. As you said, being a gun owner does not remove you from the set of people who can be shot, so both sides have a stake in the issue. Since I believe gun owners are statistically more likely to be shot you could even say they have a higher stake in the issue and therefore more to gain.

I disagree on abortion, I do think abortion and guns are an excellent parallel. Take the following statement:

“This senseless murder of innocent children has to stop. No one needs to have one of these for any legitimate purpose.”

Am I referring to abortion or assault rifles? I could craft an entire article where many conservatives would agree with every word, fact and logical construct if the subject was abortion and where many liberals would agree if I used the exact same language but changed the subject to guns. Yet each would vehemently disagree with said words, facts and logic if the subject was reversed. Would the people acting this way more likely be the ones with opinions, or the ones with informed opinions?

Arbitrary facts about guns have their place, but I think you are right in that they (or their lack) can be misused. Say you did a poll and asked “should we ban assault weapons?”. You might get a lot of people saying “yes”. But if you then asked these people what an assault weapon was and got seven different definitions, parts of which were mutually exclusive, then your poll would be useless except as a measure of general sentiment, and even that might be flawed.

On the other hand, if you did the same poll but tried to define “assault weapon” for purposes of the question, you might end up confusing those who did not know the meaning of specific terms. Among those who did understand the question, the responses would be more accurate and useful for making policy, but they might not be a representative sample of the population due to exclusion of the confused.

It is a tradeoff, and I am well aware that the phrasing can be used by someone creating a poll to skew the answers in a particular direction. There was a…fracas on Daily Kos about recent gun polls with exactly these qualities (calling it a debate or discussion would be a disservice to either word).

Everyone has an opinion and is entitled to such. But clearly, some opinions are more useful or credible than others when it comes to actually doing something.

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Consumatopia 12.31.12 at 3:31 am

Would the people acting this way more likely be the ones with opinions, or the ones with informed opinions?

Who can say? They might have very detailed opinions on the legitimacy of various reasons for having a gun or an abortion, and there’s no reason to expect those reasons to be symmetric. On the one hand, a gun is an instrument that could be used to kill someone, while an abortion must destroy an embryo or it isn’t an abortion. (An abortion is an act, a gun is a device for performing an act.) On the other hand, an embryo isn’t necessarily a person while children killed at Sandy Hook certainly were. Also, the burden of being denied a firearm isn’t like the burden of carrying a pregnancy to term.

And, of most relevance to the issue of whether it’s legitimate to have an opinion of something over which you don’t have perfect knowledge, everyone can be threatened by guns, not everyone can be threatened by abortion. You don’t need to know very much to have a stake in a gun discussion: “I don’t want to be shot” would suffice.

Now translating that preference into policy requires us to take specific facts about guns and crime into account. But talking about one opinion being more “credible” than another gets it wrong, I think–the person who knows that they don’t want to be shot and not much else may not be capable of writing good legislation by themselves, but any decent legislation would still take their (very reasonable!) desire to avoid death by firearms into account.

“I don’t want to be shot” doesn’t tell us how to achieve our goals, but it tells us what our goals should be. It’s a perfectly credible opinion–one that many of us gun owners have come to wish we had listened to more often.

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Shamash 12.31.12 at 3:58 am

“I don’t want to be shot” is an opinion that tells me what that person wants, but with absolutely no idea of how they think you should get there. Wayne LaPierre (who in my uninformed opinion is a raving nutbag) may think the best way to not be shot is to carry a gun, and he will work towards that goal. You and I may think otherwise, but I’ll wager our goals, while closer to each other than to his, are different as well. “I don’t want to be shot” is not by itself all that useful, since it is fairly safe to say that no one wants to be shot.

Similarly, much as I may wish it counted in this regard, my opinion of Wayne LaPierre is neither informed, useful or credible if a decision is being made whether or not to institutionalize him. It’s just “an opinion”.

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Shamash 12.31.12 at 4:03 am

I’m going to bow out of this now, but I’d like to say thank you to one and all. A polite, fact-based and well-reasoned discussion on this topic is a rarity in most of the blogosphere.

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ponce 12.31.12 at 5:52 am

@84

“For political reasons, gun control on the order of that achieved in some countries will not be implemented in the US on a national level any time in the next decade…”

I doubt it will take a decade to get reaonable gun safety laws passed.

Polling in the U.S. was running strongly against legalizing same sex marriage less than three years ago, and now…

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bad Jim 12.31.12 at 8:16 am

Shamash, Consumatopia: I admit to laziness in not looking up the metric nomenclature of the .223, relying on a calculation instead. The actual diameter of the bullet is 5.7 mm. For that matter, a .38 is actually .357, or 9 mm. I give up.

In California, any center fire rifle may be used in hunting, but it is generally acknowledged that the .223/5.56 has a shorter range and less stopping power than the traditional .30 rifle, which was not coincidentally the standard issue infantry weapon in both world wars. There has clearly been a change in military practice since then, but it’s far from clear why that ought to be pertinent to hunting.

My point was that assault weapons are designed for rapidly killing large numbers of humans, which our society strongly discourages, rather than for acceptable practices like hunting or target shooting. They aren’t reasonable means of self-defense in any credible scenario. There’s a better gun for any legitimate purpose.

In sum, there is a strong case that they are utterly without redeeming social importance. If we ever get around to restricting them, we clearly need to focus more on functional elements, like semiautomatic operation and large magazines, than on cosmetics like flash suppressors or bayonet mounts, but some if not all of the appeal clearly derives from the military look and feel. It might be enough to say that no semiautomatic rifle may have a pistol grip, which turned out to be such an essential selling point that it was universally retained in products manufactured under the 1994 ban, but is not typical of hunting or target shooting guns.

Taking away the death-dealing fantasy may well reduce the appeal of the product. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

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bad Jim 12.31.12 at 9:29 am

Perhaps I ought to mention that a local sporting goods store is selling a fully automatic ‘Zombie Hunter’ soft air rifle with a 300-round magazine. Can anyone with actual experience in zombie combat tell me whether this is the right tool for the job?

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Katherine 12.31.12 at 3:54 pm

A question – is there an alternative to the NRA for American gun owners/users. I maybe it’s just the blogs I frequent, and but I come across quite a lot of what you might call reasonable gun owners, and who’d be quite happy to have more gun control, and but have no collective voice. The NRA can be as raving as it likes and still claim to speak for gun owners, and if there’s no viable alternative.

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mojrim 12.31.12 at 7:16 pm

bad jim @ 90: You cite lack of redeeming social importance as justification for restriction, but that has never been a viable standard for this kind of thing. Pornography has none either, yet we cannot ban it under the 1st Amd. You have to come up with something that passes strict scrutiny.

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loren 12.31.12 at 8:29 pm

mojrim, a “no redeeming social value” argument doesn’t have to survive strict scrutiny, because it’s a way of shutting down another “strict scrutiny” gambit.

Consider: if there’s debate over whether or not a constitutional right is indeed at stake, you might still defend a strong interpretation of that right by citing a vital social purpose best served by your interpretation. That is, if someone argues that no constitutional right is at stake in some case (and thus regulation only requires a rational basis), you could reply that whether or not the right in question is constitutionally protected, it does serve a vital public purpose that can best be achieved by protecting that right. In essence you’d be trying to show that regardless of whether the right is constitutionally enshrined, the kind of argument that does defend constitutional rights – those that survive strict scrutiny – also defends the right in question. Indeed, you could dispense with the attempt to show that the right survives strict scrutiny, and simply try to reject the regulation on grounds that it has no rational basis. An obvious way to pre-empt that gambit is to deny any such vital purpose that can only be served by respecting the right in question, and showing that regulation does indeed have a rational basis.

An example of what I mean: it seems debatable that relatively unfettered civilian access to certain weapons — those with features tailored for combat applications — really is vital to maintaining “a well regulated militia … necessary to the security of a free state.” If strict regulation of access to such weapons isn’t obviously a violation of the second amendment, then the critic could avoid that constitutional debate by claiming that even if no constitutional right were at stake, strict regulation doesn’t have a rational basis. To pre-empt that argument, showing that these weapons, if not strictly regulated, pose grave threats and have no redeeming social value is an obvious way of establishing a rational basis for strict regulation.

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Consumatopia 01.01.13 at 3:51 pm

“I don’t want to be shot” is an opinion that tells me what that person wants, but with absolutely no idea of how they think you should get there.

Well, yeah, but what the person wants is a very important question that we can’t skip over. While everyone wants to avoid death, there are other things some people value more–they’re willing to accept the increased chance of dying in order to enjoy some benefit. Automobile driving being an obvious example.

It’s important that people without the expertise to answer the second question “how should we get there” aren’t excluded from the first question “what do we want”. The second question must remain subordinate to the first–we can’t let the people who have the most information and resources about an issue (e.g. financing of large banks, deep-sea extraction of oil, oversight of intelligence agencies) be the only ones who have a say in it–their interests aren’t necessarily the same as the rest of ours!

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Meredith 01.01.13 at 4:52 pm

As someone who does not hunt but lives in an area where many people do, as we (let us hope) pursue the conversation about “what we want” as well as “how we get there,” I do listen to hunters. For those to whom the American (and Canadian) love of hunting of various kinds is foreign, this article from today’s NYT on pheasant hunting in Iowa (and its decline, largely because of habitat decline due to farmers’ needs) may be of interest:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/us/as-pheasants-disappear-hunters-in-iowa-follow.html?ref=us&_r=0

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Dexember 01.01.13 at 10:51 pm

You seem to not understand what a semi-automatic gun is. Every modern handgun (with exceptions of historical remakes) are semi-automatic. You know the western movies where the gunslinger has his forearm hitting the back of his gun? That’s because his gun isn’t a semi-automatic and the hammer has to be re-cocked for each fire.

I also have an issue with your petty comment about ‘Fox News factoids bearing no relation to the truth’. Do you even watch Fox News? I do and it was there that I learned about Australia’s gun control laws and their success. Charles Krauthammer even went on to say that a similar law could work here, but it would not be implemented because of the politics of the government taking people’s guns.

The Democrats added a ‘Grandfather Clause’ in the 90’s ban that allowed people to keep their current guns and the recent bill proposed by Diane Feinstein also has a Grandfather Clause. Guns laws that don’t remove guns from the streets are useless and only good for politicians who want to be seen as ‘doing something’.

I’d recommend you look into your own bias that you make ‘drive-by’ put-downs on an entire group of people whose sole reason to be together is that they are employed by News Corp. Is this an anthropologist blog or am I mistaken?

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faustusnotes 01.02.13 at 8:17 am

Is Dexember the 5th person on this thread to bring up the “every gun is semi-automatic” furphy?

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Salient 01.02.13 at 9:45 am

“I don’t want to be shot” is not by itself all that useful, since it is fairly safe to say that no one wants to be shot.

It’s whether or not “I want to shoot a bad guy” obtains, that most starkly distinguishes the gun nuts from the rest of us…

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Socrates 01.02.13 at 11:35 pm

I’d just like to clarify one point that John Quiggin made about gun laws in Australia. Although the situation varies from state to state, there is definitely active police enforcement of the laws. I live in Adelaide and have a friend who is a member of the SA police firearms branch. They actively search for illegal weapons (semi autos etc). Why? Well, when you think about who is likely to possess them, pursuing the illegal weapons is one of the best ways of tracking down people involved in other crime. See:
http://www.police.sa.gov.au/sapol/about_us/structure/operations_support_service/firearms_branch.jsp

This is not to disagree with Quiggins other points. I would say that the gun laws in Australia have been seen as quite successful, and are popular with a clear majority of people. I will leave the arguments over statistics to those desperately trying to prevent their introduction into the USA.

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