Monday, December 17, 2012

Am I a Gun Control Hypocrite?

Many people have rushed to speak out after the recent shootings at Sandy Hook.  And then, like clockwork, there are those who rushed to speak out after others rushed to speak out.  Those folks are quick to admonish, telling us all that now is not the time or talk of gun control disrespects the victims or it politicizes the tragedy.

No offense, but anyone who says that is a complete idiot.  Actually, I take the ‘no offense’ part back.  I completely hope to offend those people.

People who tell you not to talk about the issues in the wake of the tragedy tell you that because it makes them uncomfortable.  And it makes them uncomfortable because, in most cases, they maintain completely wrong-headed and foolish views on the issue.  And they have trouble coming to grips with that, and so they’d prefer everyone wait for the news cycle to pass and the topic of conversation to change, such that they can feel better about their own views.

From my perspective, the hurt and the shock and the pain that the shootings at Sandy Hook bring up mean it’s exactly the right time to talk about the issues.  The only thing time serves at this point is to lull us towards forgetting exactly just how much pain was caused. 

And maybe those folks will win the day.  They certainly did after Aurora, Virginia Tech, and most other mass shooting incidents.  But I hope they don’t.

The incident may also bring about national conversations covering more than gun control, and hopefully that’s the case.  Although all the facts are still a bit unclear, what does seem apparent is that this was a case of mental illness, which is a topic that the country isn’t nearly comfortable enough to discuss.  Unfortunately, the longer we avoid discussing it, the more these situations will continue to happen (something gun advocates are quick to note, and an area where I completely agree with them).

But mental illness issues notwithstanding, the Sandy Hook incident served as just another example to remind me why I feel so strongly about guns.  

In my view, guns exist for only one reason.  To kill as quickly as is reasonably possible.  And again, in my view, there is no possible reason on Earth why I could ever imagine wanting one or anyone else on Earth needs one.

I feel that way because while an individual person may choose to have a gun because they like to hunt (I like to read books about the zombie apocalypse, so there are all kinds of stupid hobbies out there) or because they think that will protect their family, I personally feel it introduces too large a risk into our community equation.  To put something so effective at killing into a group of people that may have any combination of mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, alcohol, emotional disturbance, negligence, or just plain bad luck, is willful ignorance.  I don’t trust myself to have a gun, why the hell would I trust any of you people???

The idea of gun ownership boils down to who you feel should have the decision rights.  Should we preserve the absolute right of the individual person to have a gun?  Or preserve the right of the community as a whole to live in a world without guns?  Leaving out the feasibility of the second condition, the two camps represent the philosophical chasm between myself and gun owners.  They believe in their right to have a gun, and I believe in my right to live without the fear of them.

The U.S. Supreme Court, reflecting a strict interpretation of an 18th century document, agrees with them (unfortunately).  That’s too big a pickle to address here, and I’m certainly among the least knowledgeable sources on the matter of constitutional law.

But as I continued to think more about my own opinions on gun control, I found myself at odds with…myself.

Let me explain. 

I take a lot of trips, mainly for work, but also for fun.  For most of these trips, I have to take a flight out of Chicago, and for anyone who’s been within earshot these past three years, I have shaken a large number of verbal fists at the restrictive regulation of the TSA.

The Transportation Security Administration is the governmental agency that tries to keep us safe when we fly.  Their security measures include, but are not limited to, a) restrictions on carrying liquids on planes, b) removal of shoes upon passing through security, c) random screenings for explosive residue on hands, d) body scans for concealed objects.  Most people are probably familiar with them at this point.

Now, I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I hate the TSA processes and measures they take to keep us safe when flying.  In the past I’ve said I’d rather have absolutely no safeguards than our current system, and think it completely infringes on my basic human rights/privacy.  It also doesn’t make us that much safer and just mucks things up for regular people.

Now take that paragraph and replace ‘TSA’ with ‘government’ and ‘when flying’ with ‘from guns’.
When I thought about it, I became extremely troubled by my lack of internal philosophical consistency.  I support the most complete and restrictive gun control measures to keep us safe, but at the same time I detest TSA measures rooted in the same ultimate goal.

So, I wondered to myself, am I a complete hypocrite on this?  Why is my opinion on one topic so dramatically and diametrically opposed to my opinion on another public safety issue?  Is it possible to have such wildly different views?  Do my views on the TSA make it easier for me to understand the position of gun advocates?  I tried to think through why I have these differing views, and was able to think of a few possibilities:

-          Systematic Misperception of Risk:  Part of the reason why I hate the TSA program is because, to me, it’s always been a program designed to stop an extremely small set of outlier events.  The number of people who have ever been killed by airplane-based terrorists, when compared to the number of people killed by any other means, is extremely small.  So to me, TSA procedures always struck me as an overreaction to these outliers.  An attempted shoe bomb means everyone has to take off their shoes?  You can see what I’m saying (or if you’ve ever flown with me, you’ve definitely heard me say it) 
Because the 9/11 attacks were so horrible and beyond the scope of comprehension, people developed a systematic misperception of the true risks of airplane terrorism to public safety (note: that’s my impression, although it’s quite possible the government/NSA/CIA has all kinds of information that would make me look like an idiot, but I doubt that).  Simply, people think there’s a huge risk of terrorists going after our planes, even when you’re still much more likely to die in a cab on your way to the airport than ever being killed by a terrorist.

So I can absolutely understand the gun owners point in that people develop a misperception of the risk of a public shooting.  They remain exceedingly rare, but dramatic events like Sandy Hook capture the public interest and throw any objective statistics based discussion out the window.

That thinking definitely applies to both gun regulation and TSA airport regulation, but that does not make me hypocritical here (in my view).  If I never thought about gun control except following mass public shootings, you’d have a point.  But as noted above, my issues with guns aren’t just coming from these public displays of violence, they come from suicides, domestic violence, gang violence, and all other forms of violence that is made significantly easier through the presence of firearms.  

If I were flipping out over just this most recent incident screaming for change, then you’d have a point.  But I’m not.

-          Theory of the Determined Individual: One of my consistent complaints about the TSA checkpoints is that, if terrorists really want to blow up airplanes, they’ll find a way.  Using jets as missiles, shoe bombs, underwear bombs, whatever, the really committed folks will come up with something that skirts our narrowly focused policies like ‘let’s make sure to scan your shoes’.  I’ve said that a lot, and as I read more comments on the message board, realized I was hearing the same things about Sandy Hook.  

‘If someone really wants to kill a bunch of people, they will, so don’t blame the tool, blame the people, and don’t punish legitimate owners of those tools.’  

The people who jokingly refer to ‘knife control’ are making this argument.

But my problem with this theory (and my own argument against the TSA), is that, as I see it, it ignores basic economic theory.  

A gun, a bomb, a Volkswagen, they are all subject to the same forces of supply and demand.  When you impose additional costs on any product, it results in a new market price and a new quantity demanded in the market at that new price.  When you put taxes on a car because it has terrible gas mileage, fewer people will choose to buy the car.  Are we clear on the principles?  OK.

Now the important thing to remember is that there are all kinds of costs that go into your decision to acquire something.  There are financial costs, most easily observed, but there are also things like search costs (the time to find the thing you’re looking for), and a whole host of other costs.  In the case of illegal goods, there’s a huge potential cost in the risk of capture/imprisonment/confiscation, which people (particularly criminals) account for.

All forms of regulation, whether the government against assault rifles or the TSA against shoe bombs, impact these costs in some way.  And by increasing them through any kind of rule (background checks, taxes, prison sentences), you push people to either choose not to buy or to find substitute goods.
It’s the substitutes detractors of gun control are quick to bring up.  Someone could just build a bomb instead of using an assault rifle, right?  Well, sure, they COULD.  But the costs of doing that are higher, it takes more time, more effort, more risk of getting caught, more risk of blowing themselves up by accident.  There’s a reason they didn’t pursue that option first!  The more regulation you place in the way, the more costs you impose, and the fewer people pursue the option.

Given that, I’m at least a little hypocritical when I respond to the TSA by citing the determined terrorist theory.  I’ll stop complaining along these lines. 

-          Personal Costs: Another common criticism of gun regulation is that it disproportionately impacts legal gun owners and people who follow the rules.

This is absolutely true.  The more background checks you put in place, the more hoops to jump through, the more they will fall upon the people who do adhere to the letter of the law.

I’ve had the same complaint about the TSA.  The costs of all the procedures, admittedly much smaller than those facing gun owners, hurt frequent travelers like me a lot (principally in the form of wasted time and some more frequent wear and tear on my luggage).

Now, I think the personal costs of the TSA policies stink, mostly because I hate waiting.  I complain about that, because I don’t personally feel the benefits of the policies (except in that I’m never blown up by a terrorist, which is tough for me to evaluate).

Gun owners would feel the same way.  More restrictions impose additional costs on them, and for people who believe in their own ability to defend themselves (which I assume is dramatically overrated much the same way everyone thinks they are a great driver), they see no benefit.
When I think about it, we approach these situations with very similar perspectives.  We disproportionately bear the costs of security procedures and don’t perceive any of the benefits. 

However, I don’t think this makes me a hypocrite, I think I just happen to be wrong about this, and gun owners are too (in both cases, I think we underestimate the gains from regulation).

So, having said all that, what the hell does it really mean?

I’m not sure.  It seems like I’m at least a bit hypocritical given my criticism of the TSA.  But I think it says more about my irrationality towards the TSA.  I still feel very strongly about guns, and while some introspection was certainly a useful exercise to help me put myself on the other side of the debate, the biggest change might just be my perspective on airline security.  

But even if my views on guns haven’t changed, I don’t think critical thinking is ever a bad thing.

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