Blogs > Cliopatria > Guns and Drugs

Sep 18, 2004 8:10 am


Guns and Drugs



I've often wondered about our legal and social approach to guns, and now with the Assault Weapons Ban expiring, we're looking, I would hope, for new and different approaches to the issue.

Now, if it were entirely up to me, I'd go for an England/Japan-style total ban on personally owned weapons. In those countries, outside of very limited circumstances, it is illegal to own a firearm and certainly illegal to have it outside of a shooting range, unless you are a police officer. Yes, collecting existing firearms would be a problem, and criminals would certainly continue to have access to weapons in the short term and limited access in the long term. But in the long term the number of accidental deaths -- which even gun ownership advocates admit is too high -- would drop, and murder and suicide rates would probably also show benefits. But my view on this is deeply affected, I admit, by the sense of safety I felt in Japan, where crime in general is low and crime against large, white foreigners was nearly unheard of. Still, I'll never forget the yakuza summit which police raided while I was in Japan, from which they confiscated dozens of knives, wooden practice swords, a few longswords (the vast majority of this stuff was in the trunks of their cars, not in the meeting itself) and one handgun. The only people who were killed by firearms in the years I lived in Japan were gangsters. That's something to aspire to, in the long term.

But, for what it's worth, we have that slightly vague 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, and there are arguments in favor of guns that make some sense, even to me. Guns are tools: not an evil or good in themselves, but a tool whose great power is magnified by its ease of use. There are moments when I think that a gun would be a nice thing to have access to, for personal and familial protection, against disorganized crime and organized hate. There are moments when I think about my students, and what an open target we are in academia. Hunting, apparently, is great fun, and around here it's part of an organized attempt to control invasive species. And in my darker moments, the idea that the government has a monopoly of force makes me nervous, too, though the extent to which guns are an answer is a question to which historians have not applied themselves with any rigor, to my knowledge.

[A great deal of the above can be accomplished with a crossbow and a short sword. Granted, it's not as compact, and more training is necessary. I'm probably revealing myself as an historian who came of age in the heyday of Dungeons&Dragons.]

I believe in consensus. I believe in making progress slowly, as long as it's in a positive direction, particularly when complex social and legal issues are at play. And I think that gun control should be considered a national security issue, and discussed with the same urgency as border security, intelligence reform, foreign policy, etc. So here's my suggestion: FDA the BATF.

Healthcare is a fundamental need (it's not a right, yet) and modern medicines are powerful tools -- miraculous when used correctly and devastating when misapplied. Because of the power of medicine to harm as well as heal, access is limited, channeled through professional gatekeepers, and its use is monitored by government and professional agencies. If a drug does more harm than good, it can be recalled or banned; if a drug turns out to do good in more ways than originally intended, its use expands. Drugs that prove safe over the long term, and which are effective in low, safe doses, are available without gatekeeping control,"over the counter" without a prescription. Trickier drugs remain under prescription control, and those with the greatest potential for personal and social harm -- addictive substances -- come under strict institutional monitoring. Most importantly, every drug which comes to market must pass through FDA approval and scheduling.

Yes, there are problems with the model as a functioning system: slipshod doctoring, approval process (delays and shortcuts), corruption and black markets, patents (too long or too short, depending on your perspective), costs, and the potential to abuse even 'safe' medicines. These are not fundamental problems, I think, but rather normal systemic slippage, which can be addressed as they occur.

Another model which might be applied, though there's no clear federal analogue, is driver licensing, which requires study, practice and testing, and which contains multiple levels and categories of licensing specific to the vehicles' weight and features.

How can this model be applied to guns? Gun use falls roughly into six categories:

  • personal protection
  • hunting
  • law enforcement
  • military
  • criminal
  • drama (including historical recreation)
  • (not a use category, but ownership category): archival/collection/historical
These categories can be used as the basis for both licensing users and categorizing weapons. There are a lot of details to be worked out, but the basic outlines would go something like this:

Most people would fall into the first two categories and be eligible only for the most modest firearms: revolvers, small-caliber/small-clip semiautomatic handguns; breech-loading and repeating rifles; breech-loading shotguns. It may be that those would be collapsed into a"personal use" category, though I think that handguns would be more likely to be useful for protection and rifles/shotguns for hunting, so that there would be some overlap and some exclusivity if they were retained. Concealed weapons should require a considerably higher standard of training, but if they were limited to the modest handguns described, they would present a lesser threat in cases of accidental or malicious use.

Law enforcement weapons would include the previous categories, but would mostly focus on more powerful handguns, particularly the semi-automatics, as well as pump-action shotguns, with semi-automatic rifles and high-powered sniper weapons for special purposes (perhaps a separate level of training/licensing). If the categories are extended to include other forms of weaponry, tear gas and concussion grenades might also fall into that category. One problem I foresee here is the question of private security forces and the weaponry allowed to them. Many years ago I read that the number of private security officers had surpassed the number of police officers in this country. In addition, distinguishing legitimate security forces from militia groups, or gun clubs, could be difficult without clearly articulated standards. My immediate response, to forestall the problem, is to categorically deny non-governmental groups access to even these weapons, but the situation might warrant negotiation on this point.

Military weapons would include almost anything, except for those items restricted by international convention and such limits as we ourselves choose to impose. But those weapons would never be considered personal property, even when individuals were properly licensed: only the federal government (State Guards, too? probably) would have the right to own such weapons.

The drama category would include weapons that fired only blanks, as well as muzzle-loading historical weapons (which could be loaded only with powder, not shot), and licensing would still be required. The collectors' category is tricky, but I think it might work, in general, to forbid owners of historically or militarily interesting weapons from owning ammunition. Or, if you want to collect ammunition, you don't collect guns (at least not the same ones).

I'm not entirely sure what would fall into the category of a weapon that was more useful for criminals than for military or law enforcement purposes. Even the traditional outlawing of the derringer and single-shot"pen gun" seems to me questionable if they are placed in the personal protection category and require, as with other weapons, specific training. I suppose fully automatic urban weapons like the Uzi or Mac-10 would fit here, though the military might want to keep their options open. At some point we will have to address the question of weapons made of non-metallic composite materials, but that's more a security problem than a gun use problem. Actual gun experts, obviously, as well as amateurs, will need to be involved in the classification process.

Why is this a good system? Because it preserves a right to access while clearly delineating professionalized levels which ordinary citizens need not and should not operate at. Because instead of banning specific weapons or specific features, it requires that any and all weapons pass through the categorization process before reaching the market, and that all users pass through the licensing process before obtaining a gun. The excess firepower in the market would be replaced with much more appropriate weapons, and higher levels of social confidence.

What's the problem? Obviously, any law put in place now which separates current owners from their guns, however inappropriate to their lives and purposes, is going to face resistance and take time to implement properly. This would have to be done in stages of several years each, including amnesty periods in which current gun owners could sell or trade their weapons to more appropriate buyers. Licensing standards would need to be worked out carefully, and with the same presumptions of access as voting standards and driver licensing, which will probably equally offend the ownership and disarmament camps. And it is a government program, which automatically earns the idea demerits in some circles. There are already serious loopholes in the system: gun shows, gun sale licenses in the hands of irresponsible individuals, black and gray markets.As my father says of computers, any sufficiently complex program will have bugs. The loopholes need to be worked out, and gun safety needs to be not just preached, but codified in the same way that automotive safety is. Even if we don't make as radical a change as I'm suggesting, those are still priorities.

The crux, though, is our willingness to address the big questions in a creative and wholehearted fashion. I believe this is a matter of national security. So, here's a starting place. Let's talk.

[NOTE: After an extensive discussion in comments, I've become convinced that recreational hunting should be limited to non-firearms -- bows, crossbows, dartguns, etc. -- because hunting rifles are too easy to use for terroristic/militaristic type attacks. Animal control which requires firearms should be handled by the government or its licensed and bonded agents.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

Mr. Dresner has just done a Dan Rather here. I don't mean that he engaged in deliberate falsification. I mean he's revealed his absolute ignorance of modern technology.

Any reasonably computer literate good old boy who knows the basics of gun-smithing can pump out any kind of guns in large numbers. Mr. Dresner seems to be assuming that we still live in an era in which factories are necessary to produce weapons in large numbers. He is wrong.

So, Mr. Dresner has posited an impossibility.

A better way to think about this is to imagine a future in which a very computer savvy amateur chemist, in league with an amateur physicist can build an atomic weapon in a garage.

The age of centralized control of technology is over. Back to the drawing board, Mr. Dresner.

This is probably more of a symbolic issue for Mr. Dresner than anything else. Mr. Dresner is ever the fashionable feminist/gay activist academic. What he's really doing here is expressing his hatred of that which is traditionally masculine. He's been applauded throughout his career by like minded individuals for his tremulous sensitivity for doing so.

And it's just become a bad habit. I'd suggest substituting thought for this habit.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/18/2004

You raise interesting points about technology and production. You also assume, incorrectly, that you know the answer to the question, in particular allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Clearly you are not interested in solving problems. You are, however, interested in incessant name-calling and labelling.

If you had any understanding of the relationship between law, values and social control, you might be worth talking to.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/18/2004

And you haven't convinced me that excess power and fire rate are more useful for defense than they are dangerous. We don't have the numbers to convince each other of anything.

I'm not disagreeing with you on gun education, though I think properly designed gun education would include teaching people how useful, or not useful, guns were for the purposes for which they were buying them. Yes, it might discourage some people. That's not a terrible thing, either.

You've convinced me of one thing, anyway: hunting is coming off my list of permissible uses for weapons in the hands of non-officials. Weapons suitable for hunting are too powerful, too useful for terroristic and militaristic attacks. If you want to hunt recreationally, use a bow. If animals need to be killed in short order, or in large numbers, or at great distances, it's the government's job.


Josh Kaderlan - 9/15/2004

I would agree that the difference between non- and semi-automatic weapons in cases of accidental shooting is minimal, though again I'd dearly love to see statistics on that, particularly ones which distinguished between cases where the guns were intentionally left loaded versus ones where the user thought the semiautomatic weapon was unloaded (seems like a lot of accidental shootings fall into this category, but that's impressionistic). Trigger locks, too, may make some of this discussion obsolete, though my impression is that a lot of gun owners (particularly the more politically active ones) aren't terribly happy about them.

And there you get into one of the big problems I see with your position: you're trying to achieve two mutually-exclusive goals. The more you guard against accidental shootings, particularly accidental shootings by children when the parents are not around, the less useful the gun is going to be for self defense. The only way to have a hope of achieving both goals is to inculcate gun safety in the people living in a house with guns. There is no excuse for a user getting shot because they thought a gun was unloaded; the very first rule of gun safety is "Treat every weapon as though it is loaded." As for trigger locks, I know that at least some gun owners dislike them because they make certain weapons more likely to accidentally discharge.

But in the case of misuse, i.e. hostile, murderous attacks on individuals, groups or crowds, the easy availability of semi-automatic weapons makes it more likely that the attack will be successful and that the casualty rate will be higher.

Do you have specific data to back that up? As I've repeatedly said, what you say is not self-evident to me, and I'm not prepared to accept it simply because you assert it to be so.

It's not a simple correlation: a mass killing a few years back featured a HS student with a .22 rifle (I don't remember anything else about the weapon, unfortunately), who had learned to make head and center shots through first-person-shooter video games, and who had a frighteningly high success rate in the actual attack.

Doesn't the fact that you don't know if it was semiautomatic or bolt-action suggest that it's not a particularly good example?

And frankly, making an argument based on extremely rare and not-particularly-lethal mass shootings doesn't convince me terribly. On a cost-benefit basis, any money and resources that go into preventing them or lessening the loss of life from them would be far better spent on driver's education and traffic enforcement.

I'll be honest: it may be that more semi-automatic weapons belong in the personal protection/hunting categories than I've allowed. Caliber and clip size may matter more than action.

Except that even there you're getting into difficult territory. The Bushmaster rifle that the Washington-area snipers used fires a tiny little .223 round, while your standard deer rifle (that I presume you're not proposing to make off-limits to private owners) is probably firing a .30-30 or .30-06 round. The best idea I can come up with is regulating the power of the rounds available to private owners, and at that you're going to run into the same problems.

Ultimately, though, it seems to me that if you want to lower the number of gun deaths, the best way to do that is through education. Teach people about guns, and make them understand that they're not magic death totems but tools, and teach them about the limitations of guns, and you'll see gun deaths go down.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2004

(I wouldn't have brought up disarmament, if it weren't for the "only criminals will have guns" line: I know you were really talking about the semi-automatics, but I didn't want anyone else to get the wrong idea, either)

I would agree that the difference between non- and semi-automatic weapons in cases of accidental shooting is minimal, though again I'd dearly love to see statistics on that, particularly ones which distinguished between cases where the guns were intentionally left loaded versus ones where the user thought the semiautomatic weapon was unloaded (seems like a lot of accidental shootings fall into this category, but that's impressionistic). Trigger locks, too, may make some of this discussion obsolete, though my impression is that a lot of gun owners (particularly the more politically active ones) aren't terribly happy about them.

But in the case of misuse, i.e. hostile, murderous attacks on individuals, groups or crowds, the easy availability of semi-automatic weapons makes it more likely that the attack will be successful and that the casualty rate will be higher. It's not a simple correlation: a mass killing a few years back featured a HS student with a .22 rifle (I don't remember anything else about the weapon, unfortunately), who had learned to make head and center shots through first-person-shooter video games, and who had a frighteningly high success rate in the actual attack.

I'll be honest: it may be that more semi-automatic weapons belong in the personal protection/hunting categories than I've allowed. Caliber and clip size may matter more than action.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2004

I don't think that my proposal would require a new constitutional amendment. The idea that Congress has authority to regulate gun ownership and usage seems pretty well established. I agree that disarmament is non-viable, in the short or medium or foreseeable future term, which is why I want to see the categories of personal protection and hunting preserved.

I think the limitation of gun ownership to members of government organized militias would probably create substantial resistance among people who want to own guns but not associate themselves with the government, or owe some kind of service in exchange for the right to own a gun. It's actually a more radical approach, in terms of actual gun owners, than mine. As much as I sympathize with your reading of the 2nd, I don't think making such policy would fly very far.


William Leroy Nichols - 9/14/2004

I think your approach is not a very practical one. If you truly want to regulate gun usage, then go at it through the use of the Militia. That would not require any constitutional amendment, as your approach of the FDA type BATFE would likely need to be implemented. An act of congress could establish a national set of standards for the militias of the various states, commonwealths and territories of the USA which would include mandatory gun safety classes, mandatory practice at gun ranges, and yes, even mandatory registration of all civilian held guns.

Any idea of ridding America of guns is almost certainly pre-doomed to fail; we aren't England, Canada, or Australia and guns won't be given up voluntarily. But working within the system designed by the founders, they can be controlled. It just is no one has been willing to accept the responsibility of stepping forward to do so in a manner consistent with our heritage as a gun owning society. An approach through the second amendment, establishing a well regulated militia could accomplish a lot of what you wish without approaching the level of needing a constitutional amendment.


Josh Kaderlan - 9/14/2004

Part of the problem we are having in this discussion is that the gun lobby has been so powerful that the government hasn't even tried to collect the data we need to answer these questions definitively.

No argument there. But in the absence of data, we can at least use logic to attempt to examine the problem. So why is it that you believe that semiautomatic weapons are more deadly *in the cases we're worried about* than revolvers and bolt-action rifles? I've made an argument as to why I believe they're not; where do you think I've gone wrong?

But, for example, if semiautomatic weapons are illegal outside of law enforcement, then anytime you see someone with a semiautomatic weapon, you know they are a criminal (this is an extension of what happens in 'no gun' societies) and can respond accordingly.

Is this really a concern in the current situation? I suspect that in most cases it's perfectly clear if a gun owner is a criminal or not.

I have not suggested a complete disarmament: just because criminals may still have semiautomatic or assault weapons does not mean that the rest of the population is unable to respond.

Nor did I intend to imply that you did. Sorry for giving that impression.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2004

Part of the problem we are having in this discussion is that the gun lobby has been so powerful that the government hasn't even tried to collect the data we need to answer these questions definitively.

And yes, as Mr. Morgan and I discussed, our attitude towards law is part of the problem. But, for example, if semiautomatic weapons are illegal outside of law enforcement, then anytime you see someone with a semiautomatic weapon, you know they are a criminal (this is an extension of what happens in 'no gun' societies) and can respond accordingly.

I have not suggested a complete disarmament: just because criminals may still have semiautomatic or assault weapons does not mean that the rest of the population is unable to respond.


Josh Kaderlan - 9/14/2004

Perhaps a "gun club" exception to some of the restrictions would be useful (Japan has gun clubs), which would allow people to keep their weapons on supervised premises. (though it would seem to me to be more useful to practice with a weapon you would actually use).

The idea of a gun club isn't necessarily a bad one, but the fact that you bring it up makes me ask, again, what problem you're trying to solve. Law-abiding gun owners, the ones who buy their weapons legally and keep them according to local laws, aren't the people you're really concerned about. (I hate the phrase "when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns," but fundamentally it's true.)

But otherwise, I'm not persuaded that semi-automatic capability is more useful than it is dangerous. The reading I've done doesn't make a strong case for semi-automatics as necessary for defense.

The question is, do we restrict based on need, or do we restrict based on demonstrated danger? Obviously, you want to restrict based on need, but it's not clear to me why. (And like I said before, I don't believe that you've demonstrated your premise that semiautomatic capability makes guns more dangerous in their actual use.)


Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2004

Perhaps a "gun club" exception to some of the restrictions would be useful (Japan has gun clubs), which would allow people to keep their weapons on supervised premises. (though it would seem to me to be more useful to practice with a weapon you would actually use) But otherwise, I'm not persuaded that semi-automatic capability is more useful than it is dangerous. The reading I've done doesn't make a strong case for semi-automatics as necessary for defense.

You're right, that my inclusion of certain gun types in the categories is rough: In practice, every weapon and every variant feature would be evaluated separately for its proper categorization (I did say that the process could take years). It may be that the .44 Magnum is too powerful to be considered basic personal protection... or it may be necessary to include it in that category because of the wide availability of body armor, or the frequency with which homeowners shoot through doors (or that may be a really good reason for restricting its use, depending on the frequency with which they are shooting at actual intruders). Or long-barrelled .44's might be hunting weapons rather than personal protection weapons.


Josh Kaderlan - 9/14/2004

If mass murders aren't cause for reexamining the use and distribution of something which is primarily a weapon, particularly weapons designed for mass murder, then what is?

The primary use of semiautomatic long guns in this country, from the little I know of the subject, is target shooting. The fact that they are, on extremely rare occasion, used for killing a number of people in one place, doesn't obviously to me warrant limiting their use and distribution, particularly since it's not clear to me that the killers who use them would be significantly less effective if they had to use revolvers or bolt-action rifles. (Or even gasoline. The people who manage to kill a lot of people in one place do it by committing arson.)

We don't, as Mr. Morgan pointed out above, actually have good data on which to say with certainty that owners of revolvers and rifles have fewer accidents per capita than owners of semi-automatic weapons. We should gather the data, and analyze it properly.

You won't get any argument from me on that point, although I believe that that data already exists in some form at this point. But more data, and better analysis, can't hurt.

We also don't have data to say with any certainty that semi-automatic weapons are necessary or even substantially better for hunting or for personal protection. Given the greater damage that can be done with misuse or error with more powerful weapons, doesn't it make sense to use weapons that are powerful enough?

See, it's not clear to me that there is in fact greater damage that is done with semiautomatic weapons, particularly not from misuse or error. The primary advantage that semiautomatic weapons have is that you can shoot more in a given amount of time; but that doesn't make a difference for the cases of error, and as I said it's not clear to me that the mass murderers who've used semiautomatic weapons have been particularly pressed for time. (It's entirely possible I'm wrong about that, and if so I welcome correction.)

I also think that the categories you've outlined are somewhat orthogonal to the actual effectiveness of guns at killing and maiming people. For example, your proposed scheme makes no distinction between a .22 semiautomatic handgun and a .44 Magnum, but there's a big difference in getting shot with one versus the other.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2004

I'm trying to solve all of them....

Rather than addressing these issues piecemeal, this is structure within which questions of gun safety and gun access can be handled comprehensively and directly.

On your specific points:

If mass murders aren't cause for reexamining the use and distribution of something which is primarily a weapon, particularly weapons designed for mass murder, then what is?

We don't, as Mr. Morgan pointed out above, actually have good data on which to say with certainty that owners of revolvers and rifles have fewer accidents per capita than owners of semi-automatic weapons. We should gather the data, and analyze it properly. We also don't have data to say with any certainty that semi-automatic weapons are necessary or even substantially better for hunting or for personal protection. Given the greater damage that can be done with misuse or error with more powerful weapons, doesn't it make sense to use weapons that are powerful enough?


Josh Kaderlan - 9/14/2004

I'm still not clear what problem it is you're trying to solve. It's not clear to me how limiting the typical gun owner's access to semi-automatic guns and long guns is going to lessen the number of accidental gun deaths, nor is it clear to me that an extremely limited number of mass murders like Columbine warrant such a restriction.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/13/2004

I entirely agree that without much more carefully gathered and analyzed statistical data, we are, if you'll pardon the reference, shooting in the dark. Though there is a degree to which I think the system can be reformed and rationalized without it, and it's hard to argue, actual lethality aside, that most assault weapons, in fact most semi-automatics of any kind, are really necessary for civilian purposes.

There is an extent to which I think guns are not the problem as much as our approach to law. Switzerland and Japan are law-abiding societies, self-regulating to a degree unimaginable in the US, whereas our approach to law is often more of an "if I don't get caught, it's legal, especially if I'm not the only person doing it." (speed limits, anyone?) But that's what makes the FDA approach so interesting to me: it's a highly regulated system which the vast majority of the population abides by and largely trusts.


Richard Henry Morgan - 9/13/2004

There is an interesting interplay between guns and culture. Japan has a total ban on private firearms, with low gun deaths. Switzerland has mandatory militia service, which during the last decade survived a plebiscite by a margin ot two to one. Not only does Switzerland have a mandatory militia service, but it mandates that such military weapons be kept in the homes of the militia members, ready for service, and not stockpiled in some central repository which could be quickly seized.

This is not book knowledge. When I lived in Switzerland as a kid, militia troops drilled near our school, and we passed them nearly every day when running during gym class down the backstreets of southwestern Geneva. In fact, one morning, when exiting my apartment in Chene-Bougeries, I encountered our neighbor exiting his apartment in full military uniform (similar to WWII German uniforms -- not surprising since the German General Staff designed the Swiss defense doctrine in the hope that they would be allies one day) -- and he had a squad automatic weapon over his shoulder. I was blown away (metaphorically).

I also remember a very funny frontpage story some years back in the Wall Street Journal. It was called "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight". It detailed the story of an American (I think) who lived in an upscale section of Tokyo, next to a yakuza kingpin. The Yank's house kept getting shot up by yakusa in drive-bys. He also put up a net to funnel grenades to his neighbor's yard, after one blew up on his property. It was sidesplitting article, and i heartily recommend it.

"Assault weapons" came to be banned in the US based on potential lethality, just as a Ferrari that can go 165mph has greater potential lethality (but perhaps lower demonstrated lethality). There are, however, no statistics to show that in actual use, "assault weapons" are disproportionately deadly, as the FBI dosen't keep such statistics.