This blog post will make you mad
So fair warning here; This blog post is going to make you angry. Regardless of
your political beliefs, there’s going to be something in here that’s going to
piss you off. And that’s okay! Most of the time, angry is an easy emotion to
get people to feel so that they keep engaging in content and clicking on ads.
Outrage-based content is all the “rage” (get it?!) these days, and it’s easy to
see why. It works (for some definition of “work” anyway).
But if you look around this site you’ll notice no ads, and no real reason to
get people to keep engaging in my rambling content. I don’t even have comments
turned on. So why make you mad? Because anger has another purpose: To get you
to realize that you feel strongly about something, and in that strong emotion
maybe come to terms with some implicit beliefs and biases that maybe you didn’t
even know you had. And in that confrontation, have a chance to learn and grow
as a person and member of your community.
That said, it can also just make you angry.
So buckle up, and when you start to feel those rumblings down in your heart
raise up and you reflexively start to open twitter to #cancel me, take a
breath, go to the bathroom and splash some water on your face, and come back
with fresh eyes.
Also, I wrote this over the course of a long-ass time. I spell-checked it and
probably did some kind of proof-reading at some point, but at this point I’m
sick of it and just want to hit publish. If you notice some problems in
grammar, spelling, or word-choice just use context. I can’t be assed.
Gun crime in America
Buried the lead there a bit… This post is about gun crimes and gun control
(see why you’re going to get mad?!). Let’s start with some simple stats.
In the United States, there’s about 30,000 gun deaths a year, including
suicide, homicide, and accidents. Let’s break that down a bit more. According
to the CDC there’s between 30k- and 40k gun deaths a year. We can break it
down a little nicer using usafacts.org (great site!) that takes that raw data
and lets us play with it better than just pouring over it by hand. I’m using
just the most recent data to have apples-to-apples.
In 2019, there were 39,707 gun deaths. Broken down there are:
- 23,941 suicides
- 14,414 homicides
- 489 accidents
- 520 legal intervention (this is law-enforcement shootings)
The suicide problem
So full disclosure, I’m going to ignore suicides here for one simple reason.
They are counted as gun “crimes” because taking your own life is a crime in the
US - which is a topic for another post maybe - and distort the numbers. When
people hear “gun crime” the immediate thought is shootings, so that’s what I’m
going to focus on, and removing the suicide numbers from “crime” I think is
fair. We’ll come back to them later in the post talking about mental health and
healthcare in general later. For now, though, I want to focus on just the
crimes in the colloquial sense.
But just to make it clear/justify it a bit more, according to the National
Institute of Mental Health, in 2018 there were 48,000 suicides and it was
the 10th leading cause of death overall. That means a little less than half of
all suicides were committed with guns, and that means that out of the ~2.84M
deaths in 2018, roughly 0.8% were suicides using guns. They are heartbreaking,
to be sure, but we are talking on societal scales here, not individual, and so
it is insignificant for this part of the discussion. Again, we’ll come back to
Breaking down the homicides
In order to put gun homicides into perspective, we have to look at homicides
overall. According to the FBI, in 2018 there were a total of 16,425 murders
and non-negligent manslaughter of all kinds (regardless of what, if any,
weapon was used). That means, with approximately 14,000 firearm homicides and
~16,000 homicides total, firearms make up approx. 87% of all homicides.
That paints a pretty grim picture for guns. Until we look at all violent
crimes, and realize that murders and manslaughter makes up basically nothing in
terms of violent crime. Rapes are ~139k a year (~8.6x more than murder),
robbery is 267k, and assault is 821k (16.6x and 51.3x more than homicide
respectively). Turns out, people just don’t kill each other all that much in
the US, at least compared to other horrible things you can do to another
The FBI tells us what guns are used in homicides, and handguns take the
lead. Of all homicides in 2019 - 16,425 total, here’s the breakdown of weapons
- Handguns: 6,363
- Rifles: 364
- Shotguns: 200
- Other firearms: 3,281
The “Other firearms” category is interesting because it comes from case reports
that just didn’t say what kind of gun it was, or the type wasn’t determined in
an unsolved case. If we base it off of percentages of long-guns, though (
6363 / 6363 + 364 + 200 = ~91%), then the other firearms are likely about 3031
handguns, bringing the total to a bit over 9K handguns.
Other weapons break down as follows:
- Knives and other cutting implements: 1,476
- Other weapons: 840
- Personal weapons (unarmed, hands/feet, etc.): 600
- Blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc.): 397
The rest are super rare and pretty weird, like using narcotics to intentionally
overdose a person, or lighting them on fire. It’s important to recognize here
that all of these (hands/feet, hammers, knives, etc.) are used considerably
more than all types of firearms other than handguns. We’ll come back to why
that’s important later, but just take a mental note.
Defensive use of firearms
According to the CDC there are anywhere between 500k and 3M defensive
firearms usages a year in the US. That is, instances where someone was going to
be a victim of a crime and used a firearm to prevent said crime. This is based
on self defense laws for the areas where the stats are collected, so this would
also include “(self-)defense of a third party” in some jurisdictions. To be
clear, there are between half a million and 3 million crimes stopped every year
by people using guns to either prevent themselves from being victims, or to
stop the victimization of others.
That means that there is a larger reduction in crime, by a factor of at least
12.5x, with the use of guns than there are gun deaths total, including accidents
and suicides. If we extrapolate the number of crimes prevented as murders based
on the percentage of violent crimes being homicide, we can estimate somewhere
between approx. 6K-39k homicides are prevented every year by would-be victims
using guns. It’s wide margins because many defensive uses of guns are not
reported to police and come exclusively from witness testimony not always
logged related to crimes.
And that doesn’t even address the number of rapes, property crimes, assault,
etc. prevented in this way.
In short, all current gun deaths regardless of weather or not they are the
result of crime, poor mental health and treatment, or accident, falls a literal
order of magnitude short of the crime that would be ongoing if all guns were
banned. This is important because….
There are lower estimates, however. The FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report
estimates about 67,000 defensive firearm uses per year (last stats I could find
were from 2012). Even still, that’s mover twice the number of total gun deaths,
… gun control can’t work in the United States. I will grant proponents of it
something, though. If you had a magic wand that you could wave that would
magically remove all guns from the country, gun crime would temporarily drop
to zero, and then slowly rise back up again due to the ease of home firearm
construction (guns aren’t complicated, and even relatively capable ones are
very approachable to someone with simple tools and a bit of time).
The RAND corporation put out a study that estimated there are between 200
and 350 Million guns in private ownership in the united states, but some
estimates put that number much higher potentially as high as 412 to 660
million, based on NICS background check unique serial number look-ups for the
purpose of sale. (This footnote is brought to you by the internet wayback
machine and archive.org. They are a good group, and you should show them some
Let’s take a median between these estimates to work with something concrete of
430 Million guns in private ownership in the US. With a US population at time
of writing of ~330 million, that’s more than one gun per person. That same RAND
paper puts household ownership at 46%, so in reality it’s more like the people
who do own guns each own 3 or 4.
Other than simple ownership rates and numbers, there’s one other important
piece of information we can take away from these ownership estimates, and that
is that given the way RAND did their study, specifically with simple surveys
compared to looking at actual unique serial numbers in transfer applications,
we can learn that most people who own guns don’t trust other people with that
information. At least, they don’t trust large institutions with no particular
need to know. Anecdotally we can know this to be true as well. Ask a gun owner
in the States how many guns they own and you’ll likely get the answer, “that’s
none of your business.” Private ownership is something that Americans take
very seriously, and there’s good historical reason for it. From government
agencies forcing through gun control measures to disarm minority populations
, to the whole revolutionary (see what I did there?) reason for our…
Second amendment, and the changing meaning of words
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,
the right of the people to keep, and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
A relatively simple sentence on the face of it, but it comes with such
confusion and angry debate, as all fundamental laws should. How much confusion
can there be here, though? “Shall not be infringed!", yell the angry gun-nut
hoards. “A well regulated militia!” scream back the frothing anti-freedom
You’ve heard the rhetoric. Let’s break it down a little bit, though. Words, as
we all know, have meaning. You are reading this now, and so my words flow to
your brain and meaning is extracted. Is it really the meaning that I meant,
though? Will it be the same meaning in 100 years? 200? It’s actually a really
difficult question to answer. The meanings of words and how we use them do
change over time. Even words that were used both “then” and “now” can change
their meaning, even without changing their context and use. Furthermore, the
meaning of words can change in context to their use. This is one of the
many things that makes interpreting the intent of the constitution difficult.
It’s also why we have experts in that very thing.
“Regulated” now means “governed by rules imposed by a governing body”, but that
was not always the case. Before about 1820, “regulated” meant what we would now
say “trained” or “practiced”. Before 1750 or so, it meant what we would now say
“equipped”, and that was, in fact, still a popular use of the word at the
time of the framing of the constitution (the context of the constitution as a
legal document does have some weight here, so I won’t speculate, because I’m
not a lawyer.) Furthermore, “militia” was commonly meant to imply
fighting-able, or able-bodied members of the population. They qualified it at
the time as men within certain age brackets, but that was because that was the
social and cultural ideal of who were the “right” people to fight. Today, we
have much looser restrictions in this regard.
And this isn’t just me. Let’s look at an actual constitutional law expert:
… The right of the whole people, old and young, men, women and boys, and
not military only… shall not be infringed… - Justice Scalia for the Court
in Heller v State
I left some of the (very long) quote out (it’s easy to find if you’re curious)
because it goes into more details about the nature of what guns qualify and for
what purpose, which we’ll address here in a bit, but I wanted to focus on the
definitions of “militia” for the time being.
Similarly, even the meaning of the phrase “keep and bear arms” has come under
quite a lot of review. Today, we tend to mean it in a military context - that
is, to bear arms against something, and usually in the service of protection
of something else. We think of that as a fairly military thing, and less of a
civil thing. However, that was not always the case. Again, before the early
1800’s, the phrase “bear arms” was most commonly used in a civilian context
with regard to hunting and self-defense. Again, this was upheld by the experts:
… The term [arms] was applied, then as now, to weapons that were not
specifically designed for military use and were not employed in a military
capacity…. The phrase “bear Arms” also had at the time of the founding an
idiomatic meaning that was significantly different from its natural meaning:
“to serve as a soldier…” or “to wage war”. But it unequivocally bore that
idiomatic meaning only when followed by the preposition “against.”
That was from the Heller majority decision for the Court, rejecting the view
that the term “to bear arms” implies only the military use thereof. Again, I
cut the quote short because it’s long as hell, and so is this blog post. It’s
easy to find if you want to read the whole thing.
There have been dissenting opinions here, of course, but none of them have
passed legal muster, so again - I defer to the experts. But even if we take a
purely military approach to the meaning, “arms” would have included all the
things that logistically supported a militia, not just guns and ammo. Food,
medicine, pay (standard and hazard), and all manner of training and education,
would fall under the term “arms”.
Existing gun control laws
There are a lot of existing laws around purchasing and owning firearms in the
United States, both at state and federal levels. There are also a host of local
ordinances, some of them supported by other laws, some not. It’s quite a
complicated web of laws. I’m going to focus on federal laws, with some state
For those who haven’t previously purchased a firearm, you may be surprised at
the process. When you buy a gun from a licensed dealer (someone with a Federal
Firearms License, or FFL) you first have to pay a transfer/background check fee
(usually between $20 and $50) and fill out a form 4473. This form asks a
number of questions, but the highlights are:
- Identifying information so they can find you in national and state databases
(name, current and previous addresses, social security number, birthday, etc.
- Type of gun and its serial number
- A whole bunch of questions about your legal ability to own guns including
criminal history, restraining orders, drug use, domestic violence in your
past, citizenship, and on and on.
It’s important to note that all those questions are more like tests. Once you
fill out the form, it gets sent to the FBI who, with the help of the ATF, do a
background check on you using federal and state databases. If any of your
questions were filled out wrong, that’s a reason to deny the transfer, but also
hit you with a felony charge. They already know the answers, they want to know
if you know them or are lying about them.
Once that information is put into the NICS system (the computer system that the
FBI uses to do these background checks), a response will come back to the
dealer and will be either APPROVE, DENY, or DELAY. In all three cases a case
number ID will also be returned and added to the form. That form must be kept
by the FFL holder for future BATF review (which can happen literally at any
time, and is usually at the worst possible time - like 2am on a weekend just
for kicks.) APPROVE and DENY are pretty self-explanatory, but DELAY means “we
need to check further”, and the process is handed off to an FBI agent who does
more digging. This delay can take anywhere from a few minutes to as long as 72
hours. On occasion, the DELAY can come with an extra code that tells the FFL
holder to delay the person until police arrive to make an arrest, although that
is somewhat rare due to the danger associated with civilians holding dangerous
criminals potentially against their will.
If there is a DENY, the NICS transaction ID can be remitted to the purchaser
who can call the FBI and ask for more information as sometimes it’s a clerical
error or due to situations the person may not know about. An example might be a
bench warrant issued for failure to appear in court for a traffic ticket that
was issued by camera and delivered to the wrong address. Ask me how I know…
Once issues like that have been resolved, you re-apply with a new application
form and proceed as normal.
This process must be followed every time an FFL holder sells a gun, even if
they are selling a personal gun to a friend, for example. Once you have an FFL,
you no longer make “private” sales. This doesn’t change at gun-shows (there is
no gun show loophole. An FFL holder found to be making private sales, either at
their store, a gun show, or a parking lot, faces 25 years in federal max-sec,
and heavy fines). Many states also require this process happen for private
sales, wherein the seller and buyer meet at an FFL dealer who processes the
transfer through NICS and acts as a sort of escrow.
Beyond the checks, there’s a number of prohibited or restricted guns and
accessories as well. Nothing over .50 caliber that doesn’t have a BATF-approved
“sporting purpose” (that includes shotguns - a 12ga is roughly .70 caliber), no
“destructive devices” without massive and expensive licensing - that’s things
like grenades and other explosives. Imported machine guns manufactured after
the passing of the National Firearms Act are a no-go, and no machine guns made
after May of 1986 locally. Shotguns and rifles with barrel lengths shorter than
16” and suppressors require a $200 tax stamp, and extra background check that
takes usually between 6 and 9 months. And a whole host of other restrictions.
They get very complicated, and I won’t go into all the details. States will
also add on their own restrictions on top of all that such as waiting periods,
safe storage requirements, etc.
These are all the existing gun control laws, and that’s just for purchasing.
There are more for simple ownership that applies to inheritance and gifting,
more for usage and temporary transfer for hunting and sport shooting, and even
more than that for collectors, libraries and archives. The lists go on and on.
“Common sense” that isn’t common or sensible
Many people advocate for what they call “common sense” gun control. These are
new laws that include:
- Background checks - already happens
- Nothing full auto - already (functionally) happens
- No explosives - already happens
- Assault weapons bans
Let’s dive into that. Previous and existing “assault” weapons bans define the
restricted guns as guns a number of aesthetic features that don’t impact
function. For example, foregrips, or polymer furniture. That means most AR15’s
are “assault weapons”, but a mini-14, same caliber, same operating mechanism,
same muzzle power, same modification capabilities, same… but with a wooden
stock, is perfectly fine. This is objectively silly.
Some proposed laws go as far as to classify anything semi-automatic as
“assault”. Semi-auto is any gun that uses a portion of the energy from a fired
round to load the next round from a magazine or feed-tube. That doesn’t include
revolvers, which shoot just as fast, but uses human finger-power to cycle. It
also doesn’t include anything belt-fed such as a ma-deuce because it doesn’t
feed from a magazine or feed-tube. It doesn’t include Gatling guns because
those use an external power source (usually a car battery) to cycle the action.
We can deduce that these laws are either written by people who don’t know
anything about the thing they are trying to restrict, or who know quite a bit
and just want to take away guns they think are scary or “not needed”.
It’s hard to call this common sense. It’s also hard to call it useful.
There are a number of reasons why someone might want to restrict private gun
- Preserving life
- Limiting or preventing homicides
- Limiting or preventing overall crime
- Scared of guns or the people who own them
- Against the personal freedom to protect oneself or others - believe that is
the role of the government.
I’m sure there are others, but this is a good list to break down.
If your goal of gun control laws is to preserve life, then you are starting in
the wrong place. According to the CDC the leading causes of death in 2019
(trends are pretty standard going back quite a while) are:
- Heart disease: 659K deaths
- Cancer: 599K deaths
- Accidents and unintentional injuries (this includes car wrecks): 173K
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 156K
- Stroke: 150K
- Alzheimer’s: 121K
- Diabetes: 87K
- Nephritis and nephrosis (kidney disease): 51K
- Influenza and pneumonia: 49K
- Suicide: 47K
And at #10 we get to the first entry that even has something to say about guns.
Actual homicide, as we discussed earlier, is way, way down the list.
Now, while it’s true that you could want to cut down on total deaths/increase
preservation of life and have your personal cause to support be gun control,
if you want to preserve as much life as possible, there are literal orders of
magnitude more lives to be saved by regulating medical research, and you don’t
have the uphill battle of overcoming a literal constitutional amendment. Your
energies are better spent elsewhere.
Preventing homicides and other crime
This is the same argument as above, and we’ve already covered the numbers.
There are WAY more non-gun related violent crimes than gun-related (again, but
2 orders of magnitude), and your energy is better spent elsewhere. Let’s put
some specifics on the approach, though.
Searches for causes of violent crime are hard to come by, because knowing a
person’s intention is a difficult thing to do. However, there have been some
attempts to do so. The findings have been that income inequality and
inertia are the big factors. That is to say, if people don’t make enough money
live roughly approximate in quality of life to people in higher classes than
themselves, violent crime increases. Furthermore, if people are in an area with
high rates of crime, they will be more likely to commit crimes themselves.
In other words, violent crimes are largely caused by social issues, not
property ownership issues. Put more succinctly, “Guns don’t kill people,
(hungry, poor, desperate, and out-of-options) people kill people”.
Intuitively this should make sense. Violent crimes usually come with heavy
penalties, and it would stand to reason that a reasonable person would
therefore not commit them. So why do they? Clearly they aren’t thinking with
reason - that they are “crimes of passion”, or spur-of-the-moment by and large.
Desperate people commit acts of desperation. Powerless people violently try to
There is also an issue related to the “criminal momentum” issue, and that is
one of local and global culture. People in general will tend to frame their
actions around expectations of their local culture they observe throughout
their lives, especially during their formative years. If you’re raised in an
area with a perceived tolerance, or even acceptance and encouragement for,
crime, then you will be more likely to develop criminal behavior yourself.
Again, not a particularly revolutionary idea, and it should make some intuitive
sense. If your role models and examples for how to be a functional human
includes “success” of crime, or glorification of violence, then crime and
violence will result. High criminality correlates pretty well with poverty, as
exposed by 2016 FBI crime stats.
Some people will talk about “gang culture”, and while I think there may be a
good conversation to be had there, more often than not (at least in what I’ve
been able to find) that conversation devolves pretty quickly into some racist
bullshit, so I’m going to leave it at simple poverty and crime correlation.
However, I will say that there are historical reasons why low-income/high-crime
areas of the country are predominantly minority populations that involve a long
history of racist policy. I would encourage those of you who are interested in
topics like that to have a read, but beware dear reader: There be some awfully
racists dragons out on the interwebs.
You don’t like guns, or are afraid of them. You believe that that fear should
be addressed by other people changing their behavior under threats of
state-sanctioned violence. I would argue that you are a whole person
responsible for your own emotional well-being, and looking for comfort and
happiness without is a fool’s errand. That’s all I’ll say about this one
because it is inherently irrational.
More faith in government than people
Another argument is that you don’t trust people with guns, and don’t want
people to protect themselves because that’s what police or other government
institutions are for.
Right away, the government is just a collection of people. Putting a name of
them doesn’t make them heralds of civility and moral rightness. Hence one of
the whole points of gun ownership rights in the first place.
Beyond that, though, we can look at some more statistics. According to police
statistics, the average number of shots fired per gun fight is ~3.5. Those
same stats put the average time of drawing from a holster to having sights on
target and firing at 1.7 seconds. If we assume that is also the timing between
shots (which in reality would be much lower because it takes less time to pull
a trigger than it does to draw a weapon, aim it, and fire), that puts us at ~6
seconds from the start to the end of a gunfight.
The average response times for a 911 call is about 10 minutes, according to
police stats collected from 911 call centers. There is exactly zero chance
the police or any other government agency can protect you from a crime of
passion of any sort, unless they just happen to be standing next to you when it
happens. The simple fact is that even if the government was perfectly
reasonable, sane, compassionate, and infallible, they simply have no logistical
chance of stopping crime before-the-fact. Their job is to investigate and
punish after the fact. To not take your safety into your own hands is a failure
of understanding and preparedness.
Stopping even one is worth it, and other countries have done it
I think there’s a fair moral argument to make to preserve life in general, and
I don’t want the previous sections to come across as crass in that regard; I’m
trying to focus as much as possible on concrete stats mostly for my own mental
clarification. This is obviously a touchy subject at a personal level, and I’m
writing this largely for myself, so staying somewhat detached is useful to me
to focus and clear my thoughts.
That said, certainly protecting life is a good thing. And given that,
preventing even a single homicide is a noble goal. However, I’m also talking
about nation-wide policy that must necessarily focus on large numbers of people,
not individuals. And you can’t legislate morality. So with that said, I think
it’s already been shown that private firearm ownership is a social net positive
in regards to protection of life. 30K-40K total deaths per year, vs a bare
minimum of 67K lives saved, and potentially as many as several million in the
same time period is a moral gain for society even if the deaths are individual
But it’s still a fair argument if you’re taking a purely moral stand. So let’s
examine places that have approached the issue from that stand (ostensibly). The
classic examples are the UK and Australia, so they are the ones that I’ll focus
on. They are also well developed countries with mostly reliable record-keeping
and so gathering statistics is not as much of a pain in the butt as some other
countries. This is a (granted, long) blog post, not a research paper…
Gathering statistics on UK violent crime is relatively simple, but isn’t
apples-to-apples for the US because of the way that they report. The UK’s ONS
(Office for National Statistics) list overall good numbers, but they tend
to track statistics with a couple of caveats. First of all, they report based
on convictions, whereas US tends to report based on reports weather or not
there was even an arrest, let-alone a trial and conviction. Furthermore, they
separate out Scotland and Northern Ireland from their statistics (and finding
stats for those two countries can be more difficult and come with their own
differences in gathering information). Given those things, comparing them to
the US is challenging at best.
Even with those statistics reporting lower than the US (that is, actual numbers
should be higher than reported), the ONS reports approx. 19K non-suicide
violent crimes committed with firearms in 2019 alone, several decades after an
almost complete ban on guns (complete ban on handguns - that still make up the
bulk of gun-related crimes), and levying severe restrictions on long-guns
including incredibly invasive and ongoing background checks and licensing.
Compared to ~14K non-suicide gun crimes in the US during the same period. And
those are total numbers, not per capita (per capita makes them look like
straight wild-west numbers). That’s before looking at knife and blunt weapon
crimes (some 5-10x higher depending on year). Without breaking things down any
further, even with all the reporting differences, it’s clear that the argument
that gun restrictions have limited even gun crime let-alone crime overall in
the UK is laughable on the face of it. I could go deeper on overall crime
trends before and after various legal changes in both countries, and perhaps I
will in a future post, but for the sake of the arguments here I’ll leave that
Australia doesn’t look much better. There are reporting differences once again,
but once again they will tend to lower the numbers in Australia compared to the
US (they report on arrests, at least, not convictions. But still shifts things
a bit). The most recent statistics that I can find care from 2018 from the
World Bank that can be neatly summarized on macrotrends.net. Overall
violent crime with “acts intended to cause injury” at 78,523 offenders, with
higher actual crime stats from repeat offenders and single offenders committing
multiple crimes before being caught. I got these exact numbers pulling
from territory data in from their raw data. I include in the stats
homicides, acts intended to cause injury (what we might call assault), sexual
assault and rape, dangerous and negligent acts, abduction, robbery, unlawful
entry with intent to cause harm, and weapons/explosive charges, and base it on
“total proceedings”, so it includes arrests and convictions, but not simple
reports, so still overall a bit low compared to US stats collection. I feel
this gives the most similar comparison to US stats of overall violent crime.
The total works out to 213,768 violent crimes total. Obviously not all of those
include firearm use. Those work out to 18,205. That’s compared to ~14K in the
US, even with their complete ban on all firearms, and even airsoft (plastic
BB-shooting guns used by kids in games) that look like real guns; some of, if
not the most, restrictive gun laws in the world. So where are the guns coming
Well, when they implemented their restrictions in 1996, they collected and
destroyed around 640,000 guns. That amounted to less than a third of all
estimated owned guns. Turns out, people all over the world are not super
interested in turning over their ability to protect themselves to a group of
other people with a fancy title. And yes, afterwards, gun crime dropped. By a
few percentage points. And now are committed largely with home-made guns
including the Luty Gun, a sub-machine gun designed by P.A. Luty in defiance
to the UK gun restrictions, designed specifically to be easy to make using hand
tools and parts from a hardware store (I won’t post the plans here, but they
are easy to find for the curious). This isn’t some one-shot pipe shotgun. This
is a very capable PDW. Home gun manufacturing is relatively easy, and the
technology is not complicated - more on that later.
Sources of guns used in crimes
So we’ve explored what guns are used for, crime-wise. But even with the
background checks, red-flag laws, safe-storage requirements, etc., where are
the guns that they use come from? Well, I’ve already touched a little bit on
home-made guns in places where guns are hard to get, but in the US that’s not
really the case just because of the prevalence of professionally made firearms.
But with a recidivism rate of close to 80% in the us, and a criminal
record banning you from legally owning guns, clearly a large percentage of gun
crime is committed with illegal guns. So where do they come from?
Well the same CDC report from lists that over 90% of all guns used in
crimes are acquired through “informal means”. That is to say, personal sales and
borrowing. They list the stolen gun rate at around 2%, but that is based on a
gun being recovered either at a crime scene or during arrest, the serial number
being 1) legible, 2) even looked up in the system, and that gun having been in
one of any number of police record databases as listed stolen. So this doesn’t
include guns reported stolen but the original owner doesn’t know the serial
number, or it was reported stolen out of the jurisdiction of the crime, or was
never reported stolen for any number of reasons. (Interesting note on that, it
has been reported that safe storage laws increase this problem because they
largely come with harsh punishments for failure to report within a certain
time frame, so if you are on vacation for example when your house gets burgled,
a person steals your gun, and you don’t discover it until you get back from
vacation, past the safe reporting window, even if you want to do the right
thing and report it, doing that right thing could land you in jail for a long
time. There’s no strong incentive to actually report. Anyway, back to the blog
post.) So in reality, that stolen number is likely much higher.
So personal sales and stolen guns are far-and-away the bulk of the problem.
Home manufactured (“Ghost”) guns
There’s a big push right now from the federal government under Biden to ban or
otherwise control so-called “ghost” guns, or home-manufactured guns. I wanted
to find some information on crimes committed with them to see if they are an
actual problem, and I wasn’t able to find any information. The only information
that I was able to find was two cases from California, both of which were
confiscated incident to other issues, one of which wasn’t even a crime. I have
also found a lot of “news” stories with vague indications of ghost-gun crimes
being on the rise, but with no mention of actual crimes or guns. Just
statements along the lines of “trust me, it’s bad”.
In other words there seems to be a lot of hype and fear around them, all of
which is completely unfounded. There are a few ways that guns can be made at
home, more or less popular with different groups. The big categories are
craft-made (completely from scratch builds), 3D-printed guns, and 80%‘s.
Craft-made is pretty self-explanatory, and tend to be zip-guns, pipe shotguns,
and the like. There are some exceptions, like the afore-mentioned Luty gun,
but at least in the US these are rare. 3D printed guns are becoming more
popular amongst certain crowds, but at least as of now they tend to be pretty
crappy. Often times they don’t work at all, and when they do they have a habit
of exploding randomly; turns out making something that is supposed to contain
high temperature and pressure with exacting manufacturing tolerances out of
plastic spit out of a tube tends to be a bad idea. 80%‘s are the thing that most
people are worried about.
Currently gun laws are such that the BATF decides what part of a gun is
considered the gun, or the part that needs to be serialized to be legally
transferred. It’s the firearm for all intents and purposes. Their choices for
what is and isn’t the gun is a little all over the place depending on the
person that does the review of a particular platform, but there’s some
consistency at least. In general, they look for the part that contains the
pressure of the fired cartridge and is responsible for setting off the primer.
The most common exception for that is the AR-15 which separates these functions
into two separate components, and so they just picked one (the lower receiver,
if you’re curious). The trick with an 80% firearm, though, is that you can make
whatever that part is, but not complete it (leave it un-milled, filled with
other metal, or whatever) and as long as it doesn’t perform the function of the
registered component, it’s not a gun. Then you sell that, along with
instructions for finishing it, and they person completes that last 20%
themselves, orders a parts kit that doesn’t require a background check (because
it’s not a “gun” according to the government) and assembles the final thing.
These are perfectly legal, but the resulting firearm can’t be transferred to
anyone else unless you fill out a Form 1, get a serial number, permanently etch
or otherwise imbue it onto the final component, get a manufacturing license,
etc. etc. In practical terms, the thing is just yours from then on. This whole
process usually requires some basic machining knowledge, tools, specialized
All of this is to say, that making guns at home is not that complicated with
a bit of know-how and time, and can result in anything from a one-time use,
blow-your-fingers-off death trap, to something that could almost be mistook for
something put together by an unpaid professional. The technology isn’t that
complicated when you get down to it, and all the advances in modern firearm
design and construction come down to materials and precision manufacturing.
Without easy access to those things (which are CRAZY expensive), the best you
can do at home is something serviceable, but nothing that’s going to be a real
threat in the real world, as evidenced by the, well, lack of evidence.
It’s also been completely legal since the founding of the country. And for good
One reason is that by making it illegal, you push the class of people who can
own a gun to exclusively the wealthy, or the market consolidates only to
companies that feel they have the ability to decide who gets what. By being
allowed to make guns at home, it democratizes it and keeps social and economic
pressure on manufacturers to allow everyone an equal footing. Without that,
the “shall not be infringed” part of the 2nd amendment becomes wonky. The
other reason that is a bit more fundamental is that you functionally can’t
make it illegal. Without the government sitting in your garage with you, 24/7
watching everything you do, how are they going to know? How are they going to
stop you? Like I said, the tech isn’t that complicated, and in countries where
attempts like this have been made, that creates a social pressure to make
advances in home manufacturing much more quickly, leading to things that are
very much serviceable weapons. A person can only get caught after the fact. The
cat is out of the proverbial bag.
So ghost guns are quite a lot of hype and virtue signaling for 1) not an actual
threat, and 2) nothing you can do anything about anyway. There’s literally no
discussion to be had that makes any sense one way or the other. Moving on.
Mass shootings are a topic that can get under a lot of people’s skin in a lot
of different ways, and for good reason. The twisted hatred needed to commit an
act like this is unfathomable to most people (thankfully!) and when the reality
of it collides with our expectation of decency, a storm of strong emotions
floods in. It is, however, part of the larger discussion around guns in the US,
and so it would be unfair to not discuss it. For the sake of clarity and
evaluation I’m going to be pretty cold about it all. This isn’t to lessen the
emotional impact or dismiss the tragedy of it. It’s simply to make it something
that we can examine in earnest and with honesty; what I believe to be the only
way to approach a problem in any meaningful sense.
The first thing we need to do is define what we even mean by “mass shooting”.
I’m sure the term itself conjures images of a deranged gunman opening fire in a
crowded public space, and that may be a fine definition for casual
conversation, but if we are going to get some useful statistics we need to be
more concrete about it. There is no legal definition of the term. If someone
were to just start shooting up a crowded space, they simply would be charged
with multiple charges. There’s no charge for “mass shooting”. There are several
administrative definitions for the sake of collection of data, however, so
let’s start by diving into those and how they’ve changed over time.
The popular definition(s) used for a long time were from the FBI. They used to
define a mass murder (regardless of weather or not a gun was used) as any
single incident that resulted in 5 or more deaths. They later expanded this
definition to include multiple incidents that are related to one-another
according to police case filings in order to encompass mass murderers that
spread their killings over time but follow a pattern as they go. Later they
broke out mass murder from mass shootings, and defined the shootings as
anything that resulted in 4 or more deaths. Lately the definition and numbers
provided by the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) which defines a mass shooting as any
single incident that results in 4 or more people being struck with bullets
regardless of weather anyone died, and regardless of weather it was a firearm
used according to the BATF (any projectile weapon. So air-rifles, for example).
Lately the FBI has once again changed their definition to be any single
shooting incident that involves 3 or more people regardless of being struck
or killed by a bullet. That would include a shooting, a victim, and a witness,
for example. This would encompass a HUGE percentage of shootings in general.
A few things become clear in these changes of definitions over time. The first
is that as the definitions change, they become more liberal and inclusive in
incidents, increasing numbers over time, arguably artificially. The second
thing you notice if you dig into things left out of the definitions is that
older definitions almost completely disregarded shootings taking place in
minority communities and communities with lots of gang violence. This is
because getting shot once is usually not actually deadly, believe it or not,
although certainly disruptive to your life! That means that gang violence,
which is largely ill-targeted and ambush-like in nature, doesn’t result in a
lot of deaths, even if it was a large incident, for some definition of “large”.
I think there are good and bad reasons for the changes over time, and good and
bad reasons to go with any particular definition. Using the popular definitions
of today, however, the numbers end up looking extremely grim with hundreds of
“mass shootings” in any given month.
But here’s the thing: That definition, as I said, includes a lot of
single-person shootings with one witness. Certainly tragic, but I would argue
out of line with our expectations of what “mass shooting” means when we see a
headline, or find those numbers in an article somewhere. Furthermore, the GVA
itself (which is arguably anti-gun depending on who you ask - I don’t know
about that personally, but it’s certainly the way they are portrayed through a
lot of the gun community) points out that “mass shootings take up 95% of all
media coverage on violence in general (gun and otherwise), while only
accounting for less than 5% of gun violence”. And that is by their definition
of “mass shooting”. This leads to a feeling of it being a pandemic-scale
problem, when in reality it just isn’t.
I would love to give hard numbers, but given all the varying definitions and
changes to those definitions over time, combined with the fact that this is
getting long enough to write in the first place, I don’t really have good
numbers. I’ll stay with an upper-bound of 5% as per the GVA, meaning out of the
~14K homicides involving guns, we’re looking at somewhere in the ballpark of
700 a year as an upper bound (that estimate will go down if we assume the 4
people definition, and back up again if we include injuries-not-deaths, so I’ll
put that out there as a reasonable back-of-the-envelope estimate). That’s about
2 per day in a country of 350M people. Tragic, but hardly epidemic levels.
The causes of them are also harder to pin down as the definition becomes more
inclusive. Again, we think of it as deranged gunmen on some agenda-driven
quest, but that just doesn’t hold up to the broader definition. We start to
include more and more general crime of passion -type things. We come back to
the same enforcement problems I’ve already discussed. For the crazed gunmen
problem, there are such a shockingly few number of them that mass prevention
efforts will certainly have larger fallout and damages amongst the law-abiding
than they will positive impact on society or protection of life (again, as
already discussed). In other words, broad, sweeping, nation-scale legislation
that turns millions of people into felons overnight 1) probably won’t stop the
occasional crazy as it’s on the same scale as bombings and gas-attacks in other
countries with harsher gun laws, and 2) will create millions more felons;
hardly a big drop in crime there.
So we come to one of the things that is usually considered causative to gun
violence, and that’s mental health. Certainly it’s easy to imagine that a sane
person doesn’t do insane things by definition, and so it makes a certain
In the US we actually have worse mental health than other developed nations by
a pretty big margin. There’s also less treatment available in general (our
healthcare system is pretty wrecked in a lot of ways). Despite that, and
despite the common narrative that we’ve already discussed and rejected about how
much better violence control is in other countries, the fact remains that we’re
actually about on par in the worst case with the rest of the world, and doing a
bit better in the best case. Clearly mental health plays a role in the minority
case, but can hardly be said to be causative.
There are other studies that show that people with mental health
conditions who aren’t properly treated are more violent than otherwise mentally
healthy individuals, but are also considerably more likely to be the victim of
violent crime (this combined with the afore-mentioned criminal momentum issue,
can be a self-reinforcing cycle). There are a lot of statistics on crimes
committed by the mentally unstable based on findings in court about “innocence
due to insanity”, but those are wildly misleading because that’s not what most
people think it means. What it actually means is that they were determined to
not be mentally fit to stand trial - they can’t understand the proceedings,
their rights, the charges, or even basic morality. Given that, they are
effectively not-human from a moralistic perspective, and so they can’t be found
“guilty” because there was no real intention (or so is the thinking - I’m not
in the camp that agrees with that, but it is what it is). It also means, that
while they aren’t “guilty” in the legal sense, they do still spend the rest of
their life institutionalized that that point because they are also not safe to
leave out in the world. If that changes, and they become mentally well enough
to stand trial, then they do - they don’t just get let off the hook.
So there is something to be said about mental health and its (lack of)
treatment in the US contributing to violent crime, and by extension likely gun
crime. That said, even with that taken into account things are not as bad as
the media plays it out to be, and even significantly better than some countries
that claim to have better mental health and treatment combined with stricter
gun laws (see above).
In one of the studies mentioned above, it was found that a 90-day hold and
treatment program as intervention in the case of symptoms of a mental break has
significant success in prevention of violent outburst. Currently this is
largely provided by the justice system in the form of incarceration. Hardly an
Given that, I think that it’s probably not fair to say the old adage “we don’t
have a gun problem, we have a mental health problem”. I think it’s more fair to
say “we have a mental health and treatment problem that contributes to a
violent crime problem that isn’t as bad as people think, but still probably bad
enough and well enough understood to take reasonable measures to correct that
have show good success”. Hard to put on a bumper sticker.
Alright, this has been long. Let’s wrap this thing up. First off, I want to say
that I wrote this mostly to condense my own thoughts and go digging through
some numbers and get clarity for myself. So if you powered through all this and
got this far, holy shit! Thank you! If you disagree with me, with the sources,
come to different conclusions, whatever: Great! I want that discourse! I don’t
include comments on these things because internet comments are straight
space-aids, and for my own mental well-being I simply refuse to dive into
or moderate that particular hell-scape. If you know me, shoot me an email or
something and we can talk. If you don’t know me and want to reach out, well…
Sorry. Make your own post and put it somewhere, find me on social media or
something, and I’ll happily add it as another reference here.
Also, I’m planning on writing a counter piece of this myself. One, to be fair
to the argument, but two also because I think it’s good for a person to take
the opposing side on their own beliefs in order to learn and grow. This post
has taken me a lot of days to write, and that one will likely as well, so don’t
expect them side-by-side.
So onward to the wrap up:
- Gun crimes, despite what you hear, are not that big of a deal on a nation
scale, but are very good at making people angry and thereby drive engagement
with advertisements and political money-raising campaigns.
- Attempting to curb them through stupid legislation is stupid.
- Near all existing legislation is stupid.
- Near all proposed legislation is stupid.
- Things get much, much worse without guns, counter-intuitively.
- The Second Amendment encompasses much more than just guns, and can actually
be a powerful tool for actual meaningful social change that would
actually decrease violence of all sorts, including gun violence.
So perhaps a more modern writing of the second amendment would be something
along the lines of:
A well equipped and practiced population, being necessary for the security of
the country, the right of the people to own and use weapons of all kinds,
have access to nutritious food, faithful pay, and ready medicine, shall not
This is the point where I imagine a lot of people, left and right, will start
getting their tweeting fingers ready. Take a breath, hit the bathroom, and come
back fresh. :-)