Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Megan McCardle on Bringing Guns to Rallies

Megan McCardle, the Atlantic's In-House, Libertarian Know-Nothing, claims that it is essentially no big deal to bring weapons to political events such as protests or town-hall events as long as the known weapon-toters remain outside and can be spotted by the Secret Service so that any potential violence on their part can be prevented. She believes bringing guns to these events is in poor taste and not productive, but that it is at least mostly harmless or does not significantly increase the risk of harm. Having received criticism for her claims, she responds to her commenters:

A lot of commenters seem sure that having a legal gun around substantially increases the likelihood that someone will, in a moment of rage, shoot someone--so sure that they are clearly convinced I am a lunatic for even suggesting otherwise. I understand the intuition, and maybe it's right. But the evidence for the proposition is not all that strong.

First of all, as it shows in the articles I linked earlier, something like 90% of homicides are committed by people with criminal records, i.e. people who probably cannot legally own a gun. A lot of the rest are committed by juveniles, or mentally unstable people, who also cannot legally own a gun.

I'm not sure Ms. McCardle quite understands probability. The fact that most murders are committed by people with criminal records does not tell us much directly about the probability that someone without a criminal record will commit a crime. In any event, the real issue is not whether I, sitting around my house without a criminal record, am likely to commit homicide. The questions are, "What is the likelihood that someone who brings a weapon to a political event will fire it at someone?" More specifically, "What is the likelihood that someone who advocates, or listens to talk radio personalities who advocate, violence against political leaders or others will, having brought a weapon to a political event, use it?" And, we must ask, "How much, if at all, does people carrying weapons at political events increase the likelihood that someone else will bring a weapon to political events? And given any such increase, how likely is it that these others will fire their weapons?"

The truth is we don't know for certain what these probabilities are, but we can be certain that they are higher than the probability that people will fire a weapon if they haven't brought one. Put it this way: The odds are not good that you will get a venereal disease if you have unprotected sex, but the odds are a lot higher than if you don't have sex at all. So, how much increase in the probability of gun violence do we need in order to consider bringing guns to political events to be a risk factor that we should take steps to reduce? We might recognize that the probability of VD is low given our having sex, but we might still take precautions because even a low probability of such a bad outcome is something to avoid. How much of an increase in the probability of gun violence is McCardle willing to accept? 1%? 5%? That's the question that must be answered, and it does not help matters to say things such as this:

I’m saying that the more hysterical claims about the behavior—that it makes it just a matter of time until someone is shot, that the only reason they could possibly be doing this is to imply that they will shoot anyone who tries to oppose their political opinions—are not based on any factual evidence, only a fervent belief in the bad character of anyone who likes guns too much.

Here McCardle is committing a strawman. No one said that "the only reason they could possibly be doing this is to imply that they will shoot anyone who tries to oppose their political opinions." Since no such violence has occurred as yet, no one could possibly mean this. McCardle is just conveniently taking aim at a big straw target instead of addressing any arguments people have actually made. Perhaps her own experience, metaphorically, requires her to make bigger, easier targets, but that's not the way debate should take place in an arena devoted to resolving problems.

Further she claims that the presence of weapons is not much of a concern because:

You have access to fatal weapons every day. How often, after a fight with someone, have you been seriously tempted to run them over with your car? Or grab a knife from the rack in the kitchen and brandish it at them? Put rat poison in their morning coffee? Or take an exacto blade to their throat while asleep?

I'm surprised that these analogies are still used given the obvious relevant differences between the cases. I am much more likely to use a gun to kill someone because that's what the gun is made for. The automobile (exacto blade, etc. What an imagination! I declare!) is not made for killing people and we need to have it for other purposese. I could beat the crap out of someone with my X-box, but I'm much more likely to play X-box with it because that's what it's made for and what it's especially good at. So, the fact that people show up at rallies with weapons is more cause for concern than if they show up driving cars or with hands or shoestrings because, even though these things could be used for deadly violence, they are not designed for that purpose and are things we need to have for normal functioning anyway. If the protest is not on a major bus or train route, I may have to drive, but I don't need a handgun to get there. If I thought that the US had a history of shoestring violence at political rallies or against political leaders, I might discourage people from wearing shoelaces. But that's not the case; weapons are just different from these other things.

She further comments.

Jason Zengerle indicates that the real point is that openly carrying weapons at a protest makes it harder for the Secret Service to do their job. Probably. On the other hand, lots of things make it harder for the Secret Service to do their job. Protesting is much harder on the Secret Service--almost certainly harder than one guy openly carrying a gun, because the protesters are a crowd of people who have to be watched constantly for suspicious movements. Should we ban protesting? Or force the people who do it off the premises and into a park eight blocks away?

Perhaps my irony meter has again fallen off, but isn't this exactly what GWBush did for 8+ years? Did McCardle protest Bush's actions? I don't have the heart to look. But, again, the analogy is not a good one. Protesting does not significantly increase the chances of violence whereas there is good reason to think that carrying weapons will. In this case, as Zengerle is noting, the potential increase in violence is not just from the known gun-toters but from potential unknown gun-toters who would be more difficult to track with a lot of other gun-toters around. The relevant question is whether protesters provide the same kind of camouflage for an unknown gun-toter that a known gun-toter does. Sure giant puppets could hide almost anything, and they can be distracting, but there's more protective camouflage in a group of similar people--the size and frequency of which are likely to increase if these actions go unchallenged--than in a larger, even noisier, group of different people.

Note I'm too lazy and generally convinced of the purposelessness of going through and providing all the original sourcing for this post. Anyway, life's too short, etc. Here and here are the two places I got my data.

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