Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gun Nutty

Today's NYT has a story about gun control legislation at the state level. The headline and the lede suggest that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction: after a decade in which gun advocacy seemed to dominate, 38 states are considering some bills that feature some measure of increased control. Most of the efforts are on the edges; e.g., cutting off access to those with criminal records or a history of mental illness, and enhancing measures that would help trace guns used in crimes.

I used to be fairly extreme in my anti-gun attitude, thinking that apart from hunting rifles, they should all be banned. In one version of my ideal world, I still feel this way. But back here in reality, I've softened my stance. Pragmatically, I think the cat's out of the bag on this one -- given the amount of guns out there and the strength of the pro-gun lobby, it strikes me as a lost cause, and I'd rather see efforts focused elsewhere. I remain in favor of more localized efforts, but nationally, pushing for sweeping gun control a waste of time and political capital. So, I'm happy about the thrust of the NYT story.

I have also softened my stance in less cynical ways. The truth is, I now buy a lot of the arguments that pro-gun people put forth. The tipping point for me came when I was reading one of John Sandford's Kidd novels. Kidd, if you don't already know, is a genius computer hacker who is a force for good, but who often operates outside the law. At one point, Kidd is ruminating on a situation in which Congress is getting all bent out of shape about federal computers being broken into. He frets that there will be an irrational overreaction, paraphrased as, "Mothers Against Computers marching on Washington, and politicians saying, 'Why do these kids need these powerful computers, anyway? Only engineers and architects need them.' " And like that. And then it occurs to him that the same arguments all apply to guns -- the large majority of people who own and use them responsibly get tarred by the few who don't.

It's a bit of a specious argument, to be sure. It's slightly harder to kill people with a computer than with a gun, for one thing. But nonetheless, it was the last piece required to get me to reconsider the whole issue.

However, there's a sidebar to this NYT story. In addition to the recent spate of bills in favor of control, nine states are considering legislation that would allow students, teachers, and visitors, or some subset of those, to carry guns on college campuses. This brings back my old kneejerk inclinations in a rush. This strikes me as an idea for which the term boneheaded was invented.

On a related note, nine states (some different from those above) are considering legislation that would disallow property owners and employers to prohibit guns being brought onto their property. Calcified cranium, op. cit.

If I really stretch, I can see an argument that says if I'm allowed to carry a gun everywhere else I go, why should I be hampered by having to check my gun when I go to school or work?

But really? No.

The latter seems a violation of the rights of private property -- a man's home is his castle and all that. More to the point, both ideas just seem to be asking for trouble. Despite the sturm und drang that explodes when guys like Seung-Hui Cho crack, I am unable to believe that any sane person thinks everyone else packing heat is the appropriate countermeasure to forestall future similar events. And when I consider how often tempers flare in class or the workplace … let's just say that I expect the body count to go up. Way up.

Adam L and I have argued about gun control before, so he might have something to say that will make me think about this in another light, but for the moment, I'm going to put on Jane's Addiction, and turn the volume all the way up, and play one track until I feel better: Idiots Rule.


Adam said...

I don't have much to add, we've had this out before... I don't think this particular dog is gunna hunt (pardon the pun).

Anyways, I know you've mentioned you live in upstate NY but I'm not sure what the regulations are like; New York is a very strange state regarding gun laws, with a crazy quilt of city and county laws overlaid on the state laws, some of which I believe are more lenient than the state laws and obviously some like those in NYC and Nassau county which are much more strict.

Also, I don't know if you've ever shot a gun before, but if you're looking for a fun recreational activity to try, I would definitely recommend target shooting. It doesn't really matter if it's long guns, like .22 rifles like you'd shoot at summer camp, or shotguns to shoot skeet, or handguns (which are probably harder to arrange in upstate NY, but I'm not sure). Just make sure if it's your first time that you go with somebody who knows what they're talking about and who can teach you how to operate the firearm safely. Also if you do go take the time to chat up the people who run the range or shop, I've only been to two different gun stores but of the 10 or so employees I've interacted with at those two places they were all very knowledgeable and friendly, and more than happy to show me stuff when I didn't know what was what. I know this may sound like it's some sort of religious thing, but I had a friend who was very pro-gun control who softened his stance dramatically after a) seeing how much fun it is to go target shooting and b) seeing that the legal gun owners he interacted with had no overlap with people he saw as threatening.

But I can guarantee that you will have fun.

bjkeefe said...

I don't doubt that I'd enjoy recreational shooting. I also don't doubt that I'd find the experts at the ranges fun to be around -- enthusiasm is always infectious. However, I don't feel the need, like some stereotypical NPR reporter, to expand my consciousness by finding out how the other half lives. I haven't actively resisted the idea of doing this beyond thinking that I don't have much interest in starting another potentially expensive hobby. It's just one of a thousand or so things that I'd kinda, sorta, like to try. Someday.

I mostly wondered, with this post, if you had any thoughts about the idea of abolishing prohibitions against guns on college campuses and at privately-owned businesses and other properties. Seems to me that this presents an interesting quandary for a gun-loving libertarian: on the one hand, you'd like guns to be permitted anywhere; on the other, you'd like people to be able to make their own rules for their own property, and not have to be overridden by government decree.

Adam said...

Yea well property rights are so trampled on-- if you run a business you might as well consider it public property there's so many laws you have to follow-- that it's hardly surprising that one libertarian cause would trample another, in this case the sovereignty of the owner to do what he pleases with his property.

In the case of public property like public universities, I think this is probably not a very consequential idea. I highly doubt that there will be a massacre prevented by such legislation, but I doubt there will be a slew of gun-toting yahoos killing innocent lefty professors and students. People who get concealed carry (especially in states that don't have "shall issue" laws) tend to be pretty level-headed, responsible folks. It's possible that there may be some people who lose it, and their increased access to guns on campuses and government buildings will lead to a few DMV officials getting capped, but then again you might see a drop in crime in such areas.

With private property, I think it's a much stickier issue. Again while I don't think the laws are of much consequence, it sickens me to what extent Federal, State and Local governments have pissed on the rights of property owners. In those cases I would say that my general principle that private property owners should not have all these rights stripped away from them for no discernible reason (as happens in all sorts of arenas) is more important than what I said is what I think is an inconsequential to mildly stupid law.

So if they want to ban "gun-free zones" for people who have concealed carry permits in various states on Government property, I say more power to 'em; this is not as crazy as the nutty laws requiring teachers to pack heat. But as far as making private citizens who may have very good reasons for not wanting guns in their homes and businesses allow them in (they might just be anti-gun, or say run an establishment where people having weapons increases the likelihood of robber or other crime like a bar) then that seems on balance like a bad law to me. Also in general I think that we should always think twice (or maybe 3 or 4 times) when somebody says "there oughta be a law." 9 times out of 10 there, in fact, probably ought not to be a law. Just because the first scenario I outlined is tolerable to me it doesn't mean that either of these scenarios really cried out for legislation, and the second one I find pretty stupid.

But in the scheme of things I don't think that these laws will have much of an impact, for good or ill, so I'm not too worked up about either one.

bjkeefe said...

I don't have much to say in response. Philosophically, I agree with this:

... when somebody says "there oughta be a law." 9 times out of 10 there, in fact, probably ought not to be a law.

I also agree, mostly, that the laws in question are unlikely to have a huge impact. In general, I make it a policy not to get too worked up about gun legislation one way or the other. I would bet, however, that if a large number of college campuses suddenly start allowing people to carry guns, we're going to see a jump in the body count. This is just a gut feeling, I grant. We'll have to wait to see.

Adam said...

As to the jump in the body count I think it depends on what the laws are; if college campuses and other government property become sort of special zones where concealed carry is allowed for anyone who owns a gun legally, then this seems much more dangerous than simply disallowing "gun free zones" that prevent people who have jumped through the legal hoops (which are much more stringent than simply getting a gun in almost all states) to get a concealed carry permit.

This is simply a numbers thing; the states I'm most familiar with are not really comparable to the states that are considering this legislation. For instance, in New Jersey, just becoming a gun owner takes months, requires a chat with a police officer and a much more thorough background check than the national "instant check" computerized system. In New York City, there is such a runaround that I have decided not to even pursue it unless I end up going to grad school and living here for another 5-7 years (it's a process that necessitates hiring a consultant to prevent you from making errors on the forms that can add months to the time it takes to get your papers or even kill your chances entirely, and even if everything goes smoothly you're looking at at best a 6-9 month turnaround time). In New Jersey concealed carry is limited almost entirely to people like off-duty/retired police officers and judges and some people who require concealed carry for their work (professional bodyguards, e.g.) You need a reason to want concealed carry beyond self-defense, and virtually no "regular people" ever get it. In NYC I'm not sure they've ever heard of concealed carry.

But take a state like Pennsylvania, where buying a gun for a state resident who has never been institutionalized against their will or arrested is a straightforward, quick process. In that state, like in Virginia, you probably have a lot of people who own guns who would not want to go through the process of sitting down and talking to law enforcement and undergoing a much more thorough background check (and tons of paperwork, and waiting, and fees) just to get a concealed carry permit; they can take their gun to the range or to the woods without it, and they don't use the gun for self-defense outside of the home, so they don't get one.

In states like these, if the new laws simply banned the government from maintaining zones where people licensed to carry concealed firearms normally were now breaking the law, this seems like it would have minimal impact to me; I highly doubt you'd see a rash of school shootings, or of much gun violence of any kind. But allowing anyone with a gun to carry concealed, well, that would be more troubling. Then you wouldn't need to be a psychopath bent on murder/suicide to kill somebody; you'd have a lot more people with guns in their backpacks, and some hot-head who doesn't have a concealed carry permit but goes to college might end up shooting somebody after a drunken fight escalates.

So I don't know what the law's intent is, but I find it hard to believe (although not impossible) that it would be the latter scenario. If it's the former, then I don't think it will make much difference. People with concealed carry permits already have guns in ankle holsters walking down the street, in the car, in a park, etc., I don't see why adding government buildings and college campuses to the list of places they pack heat will make much of a difference.

bjkeefe said...

That's a good point about state laws restricting concealed carry dampening the number of on-campus guns, even if the campuses are banned from prohibiting guns outright.

I also take your point about places where permission for concealed carry is easier to obtain not exactly being bullet-fests. Still, emotions tend to run higher on college campuses than most other locations, you've got a higher concentration of immature people, and if you're not living in a big city, the odds are that the population is more densely packed on campus than off.

But in the end, I think I agree with you -- probably not a big deal.