Although mass shootings are too anomalous to be predictable, what is predictable is that the Progressives, from Obama on down, will instantly use the occasion of a mass shooting to demand gun control. Obama has already had his little say about the shooting at Umpqua Community College, and my Facebook feed is rapidly filling up with links to Progressive publications, all insisting that gun control is the answer, and all pointing to Europe and Australia to justify this demand.
Rather than write a brand new post countering these old arguments, I’m going to recycle a post I first wrote in February 2013, when my son’s high school English teacher, for no good reason whatsoever, handed out New York Times anti-gun propaganda to the students.
As you read the following, the only thing I ask of you is that you remember that Europe has changed a lot in just the last few weeks. I suspect that all those people who so willingly handed their guns over to the government when they were good little Englishmen, or good little Germans, or good little Dutchmen, will soon be wishing that they had an armory in their homes.
Just yesterday, my son came home from high school and shared with me two New York Times articles that his English teacher had distributed to the students. One article was by Elisabeth Rosenthal and the other by Nicholas Kristof. Each advocates a significant increase in gun control. The teacher was unable to explain to the students why he believed those articles were in any way relevant to the book they were studying.
[I wrote the teacher a letter, which I share here with you.]
Dear Mr. English Teacher:
I appreciate that you are encouraging your students to engage in analytical thinking. I therefore thought I could help begin the dialog by reviewing the factual and logical fallacies that underlie those two opinion pieces and by offering an opposing viewpoint.
I’ll begin by examining Dr. Rosenthal’s “news analysis,” which relies upon failed Latin American countries to argue that “More Guns = More Killings.” As you’ve probably already realized, Dr. Rosenthal, despite purporting to present news, includes almost no data in her article. For the most part, she relies on anecdotal evidence and strong opinions. When she does introduce data, she drifts from one country to another to make her points, without ever anchoring her facts to a statistical analysis of rising or falling gun crime within a single country.
Rosenthal’s inability to stick to one data set is a common fallacy. People who argue in favor of strict gun control like to point out that England, which has extremely strict gun control, has a lower gun homicide rate than the United States. The logical conclusion, gun-control proponents imply, is that if the United States enacted English gun control laws it too would have an equally low homicide rate.
The problem with this syllogism is that England and the United States have never had comparable gun homicide rates, a situation going back to the 19th century, when England had no gun control (although poaching was a capital offense) and America’s gun control was primarily limited to keeping guns out of black hands. Nineteenth-century America, a newer, rougher frontier country with a heterogeneous population was already more violent than England, which had an old civilization, a homogenous society, and a vast Empire to act as a safety valve for criminals and malcontents.
What’s infinitely more interesting than this false equivalence is to compare English crime rates before gun control to English crime rates after gun control. That analysis – comparing like to like – yields more useful data; namely, that England’s violent crime rate, including its murder rate, skyrocketed in the wake of the strict gun control enacted following the Dunblane School massacre. While England still has fewer per capita gun homicides than the United States, it’s the EU’s leader in robbery, muggings, rape, and people being beaten to death.
Things are just as interesting when one compares violent crime rates between American states. William Landes and John Lott, two university economists, published a peer-reviewed, long-term study examining the twenty-year impact of various public policies upon multiple shootings in all fifty states. They concluded “that the only policy factor to have a consistently significant influence on multiple victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws.” Perhaps I should add here is that the “significant influence” was a decrease in mass shootings.
For Dr. Rosenthal to offer anecdotal comparisons between war-torn, crime-ridden Latin American countries, on the one hand, and the more stable, but still heterogeneous United States, on the other hand, is as ridiculous as it is to compare pre- and post-gun control statistics in the United States and England without first adjusting for England’s historically low crime rate as compared to America’s historically higher crime rate. A logical analysis must begin with a “before” and “after” look at a single country: Did violent crime go up or down in that country when the government either prohibited or allowed private citizens to carry guns? Only when one has established this base-line data can one begin to draw conclusions about gun control generally, or about trends that are common to a variety of nations.
Dr. Rosenthal’s erroneous analysis is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. The fact that the Latin American countries she visited have both sturdy defenses against crime (including those armed guards) and high crime rates doesn’t mean the former caused the latter. Indeed, it’s more reasonable to believe that the former resulted from the latter.
In addition to committing logical fallacies, Dr. Rosenthal relies upon faulty statistical data about gun control in Australia. Without linking to any study, Rosenthal blithely quotes a Ms. Peters, who contends that Australia’s extremely strict gun control led to a 50% drop in homicide and suicide rates.
Actual studies show a different story, one that makes Ms. Peters look like a liar by omission. It is true that there was a drop in homicide and suicide rates, The available evidence, however, indicates that gun control had nothing to do with those drops.
Beginning in 1969, gun homicides in Australia started a consistent decline. After the gun ban, barring a single uptick in gun homicides the year after Australia enacted the ban, gun homicides continued to decline at almost the same rate as before (meaning that the gun ban made no difference to the decline). What changed in Australia wasn’t the guns, it was the culture.
The claimed drop in suicides is equally fallacious. What Dr. Rosenthal fails to note is that all forms of suicide dropped in Australia. Not only were people no longer shooting themselves, they also stopped swallowing poison and jumping from high places. In this context, it’s worth noting that Japan, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the world (not to mention the most law-abiding population), has the highest suicide rate in the First World.
Rosenthal is equally careless with statistics when she baldly asserts that “[b]efore (the gun ban), Australia had averaged one mass shooting a year. (Since then,) there have been no mass killings.” What she doesn’t point out (or maybe doesn’t know) is that mass murders are extremely rare, so rare that one cannot discern annual or even decennial trends.
One can, however, discern trends over a span of several decades, and that analysis reveals that mass murders are no more common in America now than they were forty years ago. The difference today isn’t the murders’ scope; it’s the media’s frenzy.
The one thing that has been remarkably consistent when governments ban private citizens from carrying arms is that the violent crime rate increases. I already noted the increase in England’s violent crime rate with the gun ban. One needn’t go so far from home, though. Both Washington, D.C. and Chicago, which enacted the strictest gun control laws in America, saw their violent crime rates skyrocket.
Beleaguered Washington, D.C. residents eventually filed suit, alleging that the gun control laws violated their constitutional right to bear arms. The Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller agreed, striking down the gun control laws. Gun control proponents then predicted that Washington, D.C.’s already high crime rate would reach apocalyptic heights. They erred:
But Armageddon never arrived. Quite the contrary, murders in Washington plummeted by an astounding 25 percent in 2009, dropping from 186 murders in 2008 to 140. That translates to a murder rate that is now down to 23.5 per 100,000 people, Washington’s lowest since 1967. While other cities have also fared well over the last year, D.C.’s drop was several times greater than that for other similar sized cities. According to preliminary estimates by the FBI, nationwide murders fell by a relatively more modest 10 percent last year and by about 8 percent in other similarly sized cities of half a million to one million people (D.C.’s population count is at about 590,000).
Dr. Rosenthal might have more to say on guns in other articles. One hopes she does, because her arguments in this article do not hold up to closer factual or logical scrutiny.
Nicholas Kristof’s article (Lessons From Guns And A Goose) is equally riddled with logical non sequiturs and factual errors. Proving that he is a savvier advocate than Dr. Rosenthal, though, Kristof starts by proving his bona fides: He used to shoot a .22 caliber rifle and he took an N.R.A. safety class. Kristof apparently hopes that this childhood moment will disguise the fact that he has no expertise when it comes to either statistics or gun crimes.
Having established himself as a knowledgeable gun-lover, Kristof then tells a comfy little story about foolish farmers squaring off with their guns over a goose. “See,” he says, “Guns are bad because they cause escalation!” It doesn’t seem to occur to Kristof that the farmers could have squared off equally well, and equally lethally, with other weapons, such as cars, knives, fists, bats, acid, pitchforks, or whatever else their imaginations and surroundings could supply. Anecdotes, no matter how cute, are not data.
Having set the stage (“expertise” and “data”), Kristof then dredges up the usual talking points about suicides and gun violence in the home. As I noted above, though, suicide statistics do not track neatly with gun statistics. In Australia, they declined across the board, while in Japan, suicide rates are horrifyingly high, despite stringent gun bans in a compliant society.
As for domestic violence, it seems appropriate here to point out that in tightly gun-controlled England, domestic violence is steadily increasing, with a 35% increase in one year alone. Two points can be made from this statistical fact: First, humans are ingenious and, baulked of one way to commit mayhem, will invariably find another. Second, guns are a great equalizer when it comes to a small woman and a big man.
As must be quite obvious by now, one can nitpick forever when it comes to the erroneous facts, false comparisons, baseless anecdotes, and other logical fallacies that plague both Kristof’s and Rosenthal’s articles. These nitpickings, however, are negative arguments that refute inaccurate information, without then providing an affirmative case for gun rights. In that regard, there are two positive arguments in favor of gun rights that it would be interesting to see Kristof or Rosenthal address.
The first positive argument, which both Kristof and Rosenthal ignore, is that the right to bear arms is one of the premier constitutional rights. Too many Americans take our Constitution for granted, without considering its centrality, not to government, but to the individuals being governed. Unlike the various federal statutes which impose laws on the people of this land, the Constitution imposes its restrictions on the federal government itself. The predicate to these individual rights is the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Without this acknowledgement of our unalienable status and dignity, the explicitly listed Rights in the Bill of Rights are meaningless. These unalienable rights – Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — are the abstract foundational concepts that justify a citizen’s more concrete “right” to have spheres of activity (or inactivity) upon which the government cannot impinge.
Which gets us to the Bill of Rights. What exactly is it? I mean, we all know what’s in it, but I don’t think most people stop and really think about how important it is to them, as individuals.
The Constitution is a contract between the People (acting through their state-elected representatives) and the government. The main body of the Constitution, however, has nothing to do with the People, and everything to do with defining a functioning government. Thus, while it seeks to make sure that the executive can’t overwhelm the legislature or that the courts can’t overwhelm the executive, there’s nothing in the Constitution about whether the government as a whole, or any of its individual parts, can overwhelm the citizens under its rule.
The Founders realized in the wake of the Constitution’s ratification that creating a government is not the same as protecting the People’s unalienable under that government. If the government can “giveth” something and then “taketh it away” again, that something is not a right, it is, instead, a mere privilege.
Rights, on the other hand, belong to the People independent of government. Rights have nothing to do with government control over people, and everything to do with the People’s right to control government.
That rights are independent of government does not mean that the government cannot use its aggregated military, police, and taxing power to destroy those rights. Our rights’ fragility is what drove the Founding generation to create the Bill of Rights.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution describe rights that are fundamental to the individual and, therefore, transcend government. The Founders stated them explicitly, however, because they refused to assume that a beneficent government would automatically protect these rights. It was therefore necessary to err on the side of caution and warn the federal government away from touching the People’s core liberties.
The net result of adding a single extraordinary sentence in the Declaration of Independence and the first ten amendments to the Constitution is pure magic: For the first time in history, a government exists that respects the bright line of human inviolability into which government cannot intrude.
On the People’s side of that bright line are the freedoms to speak, worship, and assemble. And of course, the right to be armed, for whatever the heck reason you want, is also one of those unalienable right.
Contrary to what gun control advocates would have us believe, the Founders did not toss the right to bear arms into the Bill of Rights just because people were marching around with slow-to-load, hard-to-aim muskets or because people liked to hunt. Instead, they included this right because they viewed it as an important bulwark defending individual liberties:
Firearms stand next in importance to the constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and the keystone under independence…. The rifle and pistol are equally indispensable…. The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that is good. When firearms go, all goes – we need them every hour. (George Washington)
False is the idea of utility. . . that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils, except destruction (of liberty). The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws o’f such nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. . . such laws serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man. (Thomas Jefferson ‘Commonplace Book’ 1775, quoting 18th Century criminologist Cesare Beccaria in on Crimes and Punishment (1764))
No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against the tyranny in government. (Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Thomas Jefferson Papers, (C. J. Boyd, Ed., 1950))
Although our rights are inviolable in principle, in fact the government can impose restrictions upon them – but if it does so, the government must prove that these restrictions are absolutely necessary. The opposite is not true. That is, the People do not bear the burden of proving that the government cannot impinge upon these unalienable rights.
For example, although we Americans have the right to free speech, that right can be limited in very specific situations. We all know that one cannot go around falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. That’s certainly speech, but the downside risk of a panicked rush to the exit far outweighs the right to free speech in that specific instance.
Those who favor strict gun control argue that, by showing that guns kill innocent people just as surely as false cries of “fire” do, they have satisfied their burden of proving that gun control is as much a necessity as speech limitations on falsely shouting “fire.” This argument is wrong for two reasons.
The first reason is that, unlike freedom of speech, which is a generalized right, the right to bear arms is specifically and absolutely articulated: it “shall not be infringed.” Although we’ve long recognized that government can, in fact, infringe on this right, the standard to do so is incredibly high.
The second reason the gun control argument cannot reach the high constitutional standard for imposing strict limitations on gun rights is because it forgets that guns don’t just take lives, they also save lives. Until one produces an accurate risk-benefit analysis, showing that more people die because of guns than are saved by them, one cannot meet the constitutional standard for infringing on the right to bear arms.
I promised above that there are two affirmative arguments that favor preventing all but the most limited infringement on gun rights. The second affirmative argument is grounded in this intellectual limitation that has Progressives seeing only dead bodies, without any regard for those who do not die thanks to guns. This myopia creates the giant intellectual chasm that exists between those who oppose the Second Amendment and those who support it. The former see only the people who died in the past, while the latter count the ones who will live on into the future.
Logically, we know that people are going to die under any circumstances. Even those who argue most strenuously in favor of total gun-control concede that gun control will not actually do away with guns. They’re just pretty sure it will decrease the number of guns overall.
With a generic decrease in guns as their goal, gun control proponents ignore the fact, proven in Washington, D.C., Chicago, England, Mexico, and countless other gun control environments, that this decrease is always lopsided: law-abiding people end up being disarmed, while lawless and delusional people are the ones carrying the remaining arms.
I started this letter with a reference to two economists, John Lott and William Landes, whose statistical data showed that concealed-carry laws are the only thing that cause a measurable decrease in mass shootinggs. It therefore seems appropriate to end this letter by looking to another economist, Frédéric Bastiat, the Frenchman who wrote the magnificent Parable of the Broken Window back in 1850. If the parable doesn’t seem relevant at first, please bear with me, and I will explain why it matters here (emphasis mine):
Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation—”It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”
Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.
Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade—that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs—I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.
But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”
It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.
Just as is the case with the economic illiterate who cannot imagine that money might be spent on something more useful than fixing a broken window, a gun control advocate’s world view “is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.” He counts those who have died, but cannot even begin to imagine those whose lives were saved or never threatened. Point such an advocate to a story about an off-duty deputy who was able to stop a mall shooter, and he will say only that “the shooter’s aim was bad, so he wasn’t going to kill anyone anyway.”
To the gun control proponent, a story without dead bodies is no story at all and it certainly has no statistical validity in the debate over the Second Amendment. To one who believes in the Second Amendment, however, stories about people using concealed carry guns to take out mass shooters matter because we, unlike our gun-control friend, are able to take account of those people who survived what would otherwise have been a mass shooting.
In the same way, when a person who supports gun rights looks at crime statistics showing that legally-armed communities have a lower murder rate than gun-controlled communities, he thinks of all those law-abiding citizens in the first community who sleep safely in their beds at night. To him, these “not-dead” people are as statistically relevant and important as the dead in that pathetic gun-controlled town.
You are fortunate to have a classroom full of intelligent, engaged young people. It is a disservice to them to present them with only one side of an argument that goes to core issues about government control and individual freedom. I urge you to hand out to the students some of the many thoughtful articles that explain (with data!) just why our American right to bear arms is so precious, and why it is so dangerous to allow emotionalism and hysteria to drive the political process.
Very truly yours,
 I am indebted to Ann Coulter, whose rebuttal to Rosenthal’s article gave me the jump-start I needed for my letter. You’ll see echoes of both Ann’s essay structure and her source materials in the Rosenthal discussion.
 Note the article’s headline: “Hand gun crime ‘up’ despite ban.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the BBC’s crack team of reporters that hand gun crime might have gone up, not despite the ban, but because of it.)
 In this regard, it’s also worth noting that the worst mass murders in America did not involve guns: In 1927, Andrew Kehoe set off bombs at a Michigan school, killing 44 people (38 of whom were children), and injuring 58 others. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh used a bomb to kill 168 people. In 2001, Islamist terrorist used three hijacked airplanes and some box cutters to kill 2,996 people.