More Thoughts on the Externalities of Mass Gun Ownership

A little-known device called a "bump stock" is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in South Jordan, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/AP

My post yesterday on data journalism and gun control touched off quite a stir and storm. I think there was some legitimate criticism of my broad brush criticism of data journalism, or at least the way my headline could be read that way. There’s a lot of great data journalism out there. My former colleague Al Shaw flagged just one example here.

It’s not all data journalism – which I stated explicitly. The problems I noted are not intrinsic to data journalism. But they are what I would call a natural and not uncommon shortcoming: When you have a hammer, everything seems to be a nail. This is as much a problem with more conventional narrative journalistic methods as with data journalism. When you have extreme confidence in the power of (and success with) data to clarify questions and reveal patterns, you can lose track of or give too little attention to whether the questions you’re asking are even the right ones to ask.

In any case, I wanted to follow up on what to me is really the central issue of the gun control debate. David Frum has a piece up at The Atlantic today which goes into the highly constrained and frequently inane ‘rules’ by which we carry on the debate over gun ownership in this country. Much of it has the same end-point or underlying point that I was discussing. But Frum comes at it in a very different, quite clarifying way. He assembles a numbered set of rules that govern our public debates about guns. I wanted to excerpt #3 and #4 …

Rule 3. The debate must always honor the “responsible gun owners” who buy weapons for reasonable self-defense. Under Rule 1, these responsible persons are presumed to constitute the great majority of gun owners. It’s out of bounds to ask for some proof of this claimed responsibility, some form of training for example. It’s far out of bounds to propose measures that might impinge on owners: the alcohol or drug tests for example that are so often recommended for food stamp recipients or teen drivers.

Rule 4. Gun ownership is always to be discussed as a rational choice motivated by reasonable concerns for personal safety. No matter how blatantly gun advocates appeal to fears and fantasies—Sean Hannity musing aloud on national TV about how he with a gun in his hands could have saved the day in Las Vegas if only he had been there—nobody other than a lefty blogger may notice that this debate is about race and sex, not personal security. It’s out of bounds to observe that “Chicago” is shorthand for “we only have gun crime because of black people” or how often “I want to protect my family” is code for “I need to prove to my girlfriend who’s really boss.”

There’s a lot here – in this passage and the rest of the piece. But the big, overriding point is that we can come up with a million workarounds but at the end of the day if you have huge amounts of weapons and a culture that valorizes guns, you’re going to have a lot of people killed by guns. As David also notes, it’s not just the number of guns. It’s also the deeply ingrained opposition to any regulation or tracking of guns. Germany and France have far fewer guns per capita than the US. But they still have quite a few. All of these factors combined have profound consequences.

You could expend a lot of energy and brilliance devising a public health strategy that didn’t employ basic sanitation as a core component. But it’s going to be a challenge. And why would you do that?

Almost our entire gun debate is engineered around ignoring these obvious and demonstrable points. David’s piece goes into just a few of the reasons that’s the case. The other point is tied to what we might broadly call the externalities of gun ownership. The simple truth is that the middle aged guy who owns 50 guns, uses them lawfully and responsibly and never hurts a fly is also part of the problem. That’s especially the case if he resists any drive to regulate them.

Mass ownership has consequences both direct and indirect. Mass gun ownership, the ingrained resistance to regulation or restriction, the broad valorization of guns in ways that are tied to beliefs about race and gender – all of these have consequences, even with people who never hurt anyone with their guns.

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