Guns, Lysenko, and Ezra Klein

What does Stalinist biology have in common with gun-nuttery?

Ezra Klein has been filling in on Larry O’Donnell’s MS-NBC show The Last Word, and last night we talked about guns.

Ezra’s lead-in was in many ways more interesting than my segment. I didn’t say anything RBC readers don’t already know; after all, I’m not a real gun expert (like Phil Cook or Jens Ludwig or John Donohue or Rick Rosenfeld or David Kennedy or Susan Ginsburg); I just play one on TV. But Ezra proved again the silliness of the false equivalence between MS-NBC and Fox; he devoted most of the segment to demolishing the case for bringing back the Assault Weapons Ban (as opposed to the limitation on high-capacity magazines).

Putting aside the merits of the question, just imagine a Fox News host carefully explaining why a key Republican talking point is fundamentally bogus.

At the very end, we talked about the President’s actions to limit the scope of the Congressional ban on gun-violence research, and I called that limitation “an anti-Lysenkoist measure,” thus dating myself.

Everything old is new again; if you think that having politicians decide scientific questions, and persecute scientists who follow the data rather than the Party line, is obsolete, you’ve clearly never met a contemporary Republican politician (VA Attorney General and Gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, for example).

So while I’m glad to have added a word to Ezra’s already-prodigious vocabulary, I’m sorry that “Lysenkoism” is of contemporary, rather than merely antiquarian, interest. But since it is, we should all be aware of it, and its insidious effects.

Footnote Kevin Drum’s piece on lead and crime reminds me that the first researcher to show a link at the individual level – Herb Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh – almost lost his job to a furious assault, featuring trumped-up accusations of scientific fraud brought by people paid as expert witnesses by the smelter industry.

Obama on guns

He went wide, and big.

I suspected that Obama would keep it fairly simple: background checks, real penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchasing, high-capacity magazines, tracing, data, research. Other than the magazines provision, none of that would have any impact on the acquisition and use of firearms by people entitled to possess them. That would have made it obvious how unreasonable the NRA is, and probably split the House Republicans enough to get something through. That might still happen if the Senate breaks the program down into bite-sized pieces.

Instead, the President went wide and big: all of the above, plus a renewed assault weapons ban, stiffer sanctions for gun trafficking, prosecution for ineligible felons who try to buy guns, money to hire extra cops, school security and counselors, and some sort of mental-health agenda.

Still, when Wayne LaPierre says “It’s about banning your guns … PERIOD!” he is obviously Saying The Thing That Is Not. As with the Romney campaign, reporters will have to decide whether to report the falsity of the charge in the same sentence in which they report the charge. Add that to the utterly over-the-top ad targeting Sasha and Malia, and we could finally see the NRA start to lose some of its power.

The same applies to the reflexive Republican accusation that Obama is trying to seize dictatorial power by using his authority as the head of the Executive Branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” As far as I can tell, none of the executive actions he announced today gets anywhere near the line.

Substantively, the minimalist agenda had most of the feasible items likely to actually reduce gun violence. (Not clear that a ban on selling new high-capacity magazines would matter much, but it, plus the AWB, provides a nexus to Newtown. Everyone has to wrestle with the fact that the event that put guns back on the political agenda is so atypical that good legislation will mostly be about something else. An Australian-style ban might or might not work, but it’s nowhere near feasible politically.)

More cops on the street are generally a good investment, especially if they’re used in ways that reduce, rather than increasing, the incarceration rate. And of course anything that prevents state and local layoffs from acting as a drag on economic recover is to be supported. But that’s hardly central here.

What’s done is done, and the battle lines are now drawn. This may serve as the first test of the Obama campaign organization’s capacity to mobilize voters for other purposes. Looking forward to 2014, that could be as important as the substance of gun policy.

Footnote I hope Harry Reid gives his colleagues a chance to vote on a resolution condemning the NRA for using the President’s children in an attack ad.

Reducing drunken violence

Reducing gun violence would be hard. Reducing alcohol violence would be easy.

I agree with Eugene Volokh that for some problems there is no solution that will do more good than harm. While I think he understates the limited but real prospects for reducing violence through controlling access to weapons by dangerous people, I also think that others overstate those prospects.

But it seems to me that Eugene is plainly wrong when it comes to alcohol, which he uses as a comparison case in arguing against gun controls. We could easily make substantial reductions in alcohol-related violence – and accidents, and health damage to drinkers – with a few straightforward and administratively feasible policy changes without major unwanted side-effects.

First, we could raise taxes. Doubling the federal alcohol tax from the current ten cents per drink to twenty cents would reduce homicide and automobile fatalities about about 7% each, saving about 3000 lives per year. It would cost a two-drinks-per-day drinker (at about the 80th percentile of all drinkers about $6 per month. (Fully internalizing the external costs of drinking would involve taxes nearer a dollar a drink.)

Second, we could make it harder for people who break the law when they get drunk to continue drinking, either by subjecting them to alcohol testing in programs such as South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety (twice-daily alcohol testing on probation) or by creating a “do-not-serve” list of convicted drunken drivers and drunken assailants and requiring alcohol sellers to check customers against that list (or putting a “do-not-serve” marking on the convicted person’s driver’s license).

Neither of these approaches would eliminate the drinking problem, or even the narrower drunken-violence problem, but the combination would substantially reduce them. And yet so far it has proven virtually impossible even to get such obviously rational policies on the political agenda; “drug warriors” and “drug policy reformers” alike remain stubbornly indifferent to means of reducing the damage done by the one intoxicant we’re not currently making war on.

Obama’s agenda

“Cliff” speech mentions immigration, global warming, infrastructure, and gun violence.

A couple of things to note from the President’s statement after the House stepped back from the cliff (other than his strong reiteration of a refusal to deal about the debt ceiling, which he correctly identified as whether the Congress would renege on paying the bills for spending the Congress had ordered): his list of topics other than the budget that need the country’s attention included immigration, climate change, infrastructure, and gun violence.

Gun-liability insurance

If you’re going to do it – probably not a great idea – put the liability on the manufacturer or importer, not the buyer.

I’m not a fan of mandatory liability insurance for gun owners; Megan McArdle picks some good holes in the proposal, without even mentioning the big problem about how to attribute liability when the firearm used in an assault or homicide is never recovered by law enforcement. But even a flawed concept ought to be considered in its most nearly plausible form.

For gun-liability insurance, it seems to me the most plausible form would be strict liability on the manufacturer (or importer) for any damage to third parties done with the gun, and a requirement that the liable party either carry insurance or post a bond (to avoid the “judgement-proofness” problem.) Damage from unrecovered weapons could be allocated on the market-share principle.

That system would give the gun industry a strong incentive to be careful about not selling to people who might misuse the weapon or re-transfer it to someone who would. In effect, such a law would force the gun industry to act as a regulatory authority.

Now go back to Megan’s piece to read about all the issues that would raise. And then think about how hard it would be for anyone living in a poor African-American neighborhood to buy a gun.

David Gregory’s crime

If gun-rights advocates don’t want to be called “gun nuts,” perhaps they might consider acting sanely every once in a while, just to keep in practice.

I see all Red Blogistan wants to see David Gregory in prison for showing a high-capacity magazine on television. Seems DC gun laws forbid the clips, even disconnected from any guns. Putting aside the question of whether there’s any admissible evidence of a crime – which there probably isn’t unless Gregory held on to the object, since he can’t be compelled to testify and there’s no proof that it was in fact a magazine rather than, say, a plastic model of one – I’m stunned by the sheer viciousness displayed in the whole affair.

Do you recall the demands that George H.W. Bush be imprisoned for cocaine possession when he showed a baggie of crack on TV? Neither do I.

Gregory isn’t alone, of course: the same crowd is chortling over the “petition” to deport Piers Morgan for the unforgiven sin of blasphemy against the Holy Firearm. If gun-rights advocates don’t want to be called “gun nuts,” perhaps they might consider acting less insanely. Eugene Volokh shows them how. But so far his voice of reason is a lonely one.

Gannett’s shame

Publishing the names and addresses of gun-permit holders? Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

There’s simply no public purpose – and therefore no excuse – for publishing a map with the names and addresses of the holders of gun permits.

This provides a strong argument against forms of recordkeeping that could actually help solve gun crimes. All for the sake of some hits.

Historically, Gannett has done some good work. But this is utterly beyond the pale. I can’t find an email address for the publisher, Larry Kramer, but you can Tweet him @lkramer.

Footnote No, none of the glibertarian gun nuts making a fuss about this had any objection to doing it to abortion recipients: a much more damaging invasion of privacy. But that’s them, not us.

Yeah, more of me babbling on bloggingheads

…with Glenn Loury. We hit gun violence, immigration, respectfully discussing same-sex marriage with people we love who were raised in another era, dispelling Glenn’s cynical views of American politics. This particular clip hits on immigration policy.  I think it’s unjust to invite immigrants here, to implicitly and explicitly benefit from their low-wage labor for years within our economy–and then to act as though they are criminals when we discuss issues such as emergency health care and the Dream Act.

Darwin award nominee

Nancy Lanza, killed with a gun from her survivalist stockpile by the son she trained in firearms use.

The Darwin Awards honor those “who have improved the human gene pool by subtracting themselves from it,” earning the award by choosing unusually foolish ways to die. (One of the 2011 winners was killed when he went over his motorcycle handlebars bare-headed while riding in a protest parade against motorcycle-helmet laws.)

The 2012 awards have not yet been announced, but I hope that the judges will accept a late nominee: Nancy Lanza, killed with one of the guns she was stockpiling to protect herself against a massive breakdown of the social order, by the seriously disturbed son she trained in the use of firearms. And I don’t think her lamentable failure to take herself out of the pool twenty years earlier ought to count against her.

Footnote Yes, yes, this has nothing to do with “fitness” in any true evolutionary sense. In this case, there’s no reason to think that survivalist mishegas has any genetic component.

Second footnote No, what happened to Nancy Lanza wasn’t funny; it was horribly sad. But survivalism is ridiculous – that is, literally, deserving of ridicule – and the Darwin Awards are for those who come by their deaths ridiculously.

Further thoughts on gun policy

My post from Tuesday elicited some pertinent responses, which I appreciated.

I’ve corrected the inaccuracies in the military calibers 5.56 and 7.62.

In response to my suggestion that Congress consider using the National Firearms Act framework and create a new category for certain military caliber weapons and large capacity ammunition, one person pointed out that the gun industry could game the ammunition and make new calibers. This was the kind of manipulation that undermined the first generation assault weapons ban. However, the changes required here would be far more costly as they go to core aspects of firearms and not merely cosmetic features.

If this is a concern though, an alternative would be to add any semi-automatic rifle, shotgun, or handgun to the NFA. Then we would be back to revolvers, and bolt, pump, and lever action rifles and shotguns. That would make sense.

I’ll close by posting an email from a friend who is a hunter. He takes a much stronger position than the one I’ve put on the table, making me question whether my proposals go far enough. However, my NFA proposal goes much farther than a prospective assault weapons ban. My friend starts with the topic of safe storage, and moves on to what should be banned and to licensing of firearms and their owners.

From my friend: Though I own and use sporting guns, I agree that there are plenty of weapons that are legal today for which there is no legitimate civilian use or need. One of Susan’s points that has gotten far too little attention is gun storage: in the past 20 years I have lived in and been licensed in three US jurisdictions that are known for stringent firearms regulations (New York City, DC, and MA), but I have been shocked at the lack of tough requirements for secure gun storage. (I follow the UK standard, where I have also been licensed, which calls for a locked safe bolted to the wall.) As for large-capacity magazines, possession should simply be banned.

The UK is, in my view, appropriately stringent on the subject of secure storage. Before issuing or renewing a license, the police will visit your house and inspect the safe where you’ll be keeping firearms. There is a British Standard for gun safes that is quite specific in terms of the type of lock, construction, etc. It’s all common sense and frankly should be welcomed by the gun owner for prevention of theft.

The Clinton-era assault weapons ban was a deeply flawed piece of legislation, and I suspect that the NRA knew from the outset that it wouldn’t work. As I recall, the definition of “assault rifle” was that it was semi-automatic with a detachable magazine plus two or more features from a long list. At the time, I remember being both amused when Clinton hailed it as a victory for gun control and terrified that Congress could be so easily hoodwinked. Under the law, anybody could buy a semi-automatic with a detachable magazine – and it’s those two features alone that make it extremely lethal! The other features included things like pistol grips and flash supressors, which are utterly irrelevant to the extreme danger of a high-capacity semi-automatic weapon in the hands of a lunatic. I think that something could suddenly become an assault rifle if someone added a bayonet mount – really completely ridiculous.

The issue then, as now, is that semi-automatic weapons with large magazines are extremely dangerous. In the 1990s, the gun lobby presumably broke open the Champagne when they got those two things and then spent weeks arguing about pistol grips, bayonet mounts, and other relatively unimportant features that could be “gives” to the other side.

I think that the caliber argument, which I’ve seen mentioned frequently in recent days, is similar: if you ban the .223, then people will just use civilian rounds like .22-250 or .243 – the difference is irrelevant to a human target. There are so many calibers available today that the whole discussion about which ones to allow and which ones to ban is a red herring. Many calibers that are commonly used today for hunting and target shooting are “previously or currently used by a foreign or domestic national military force.” The .30-06, which is probably the most common deer cartridge today, was the primary US Army cartridge for 50 years, and the standard 12-gauge shotgun cartridge, used by duck hunters, trap shooters, and Olympic competitors, is also used by virtually every military and police force in the world. Even the .22 rimfire, which is the summer camp standard for target shooting, has military uses. This seems to detract from the bigger issues, which are magazine size, storage, background checks and training, and armor-piercing bullets.

Frangibility is also something that is tricky to legislate. Many target ranges, for example, understandably require the use of highly frangible ammunition: it is far less likely to ricochet (which can be very dangerous) because it breaks up into smaller pieces when it hits a backstop. Likewise, hollow-point ammunition is considered more humane for hunting deer because it reduces the chance of a crippling (but non-lethal) wound. (I believe that hollow-point is required in the UK for deer for that reason.)

This time around, I would hope that the discussion centers on the few critical issues and avoids the many distractions that can be thrown in. My straw man for the critical ones:

• Background checks for possession (both initial and upon renewal)
• Required passage of a certified safety course prior to licensing (which is already the case in MA)
• Licensing of both the person and the gun (which is not the case in many jurisdictions)
• Secure storage
• No large magazines (“large” is certainly >10 and maybe >5), semi-automatic or otherwise – mere possession of a large magazine is a felony
• Make it retroactive (which the Clinton law wasn’t) – if you have a semi-automatic rifle, you can keep it but not have a large magazine; there are design features that manufacturers could incorporate to prevent new guns from accepting large-capacity magazines