Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Firing Line: Gun Law

Gun control. One of the best ways to start a flame war online is to discuss gun policy, especially in the USA. Generally, there's two camps as Barry Eisler notes: Gun Control Proponents and Gun Control Opponents. Gun Control Opponents argue for the right to defend themselves on their own property or in public with firearms, while Gun Control Proponents would forgo this for their belief in reduced potential harm.

Before we proceed, I'll admit my own thoughts. I believe dangerous technologies, especially ones like firearms, should be available to the public. Governments are notoriously bad at predicting which technologies are the most harmful, and many policies cannot be enforced if there is widespread disregard for existing rules. This isn't to say there will be no policies or laws on firearms and other weapons, but less is more. Too much regulation of anything eventually gets to a point of diminishing returns, where even otherwise law-abiding citizens might disregard laws.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's define gun control: A set of legal requirements acting as a prerequisite for lawful ownership and/or use of a firearm or other weapon. Under this definition, however, even policies like a carry concealed permit in the US (being lawfully able to carry a concealed firearm on one's person) are 'gun control.' (Even if you have a gun for self defense, I would still learn martial arts, as firearms can fail/jam/run out of ammo, and may not be available at some times and places.)

A related issue is the legal ability to carry around a firearm in public for self defense of one's person. In the USA, this is known as Carry Concealed. Other countries have similar policies (although sometimes, the criteria may be stricter or looser than some US states), such as Germany, Russia, some Latin American countries, and other places. Even Canada and Singapore have rarely issued analogs. Even in the US, many of the applicants to this process require a clean background (e.g. 'good character'), waiting period, and severe penalties on misuse/abuse of that firearm. There are also legal limits (and practical limits) to the amount of ammo one can carry. Extra magazines are quite heavy, especially larger calibers. There's also a "Genuine Need" clause in some countries, although this varies by country and region.

In the US, though, much of the legal basis of the "right to bear arms" comes from the 2nd Amendment of its own Constitution. Considering as the US government now claims the right to assassinate any citizen for any reason it wants with no due process, we can assume it no longer gives a damn about rule of law. But taking a step back in time, the American Bill of Rights was largely based on another document, the English Bill of Rights (and by 'largely based on,' I mean 'copied and pasted'). It was for violations of the English Bill of Rights, coupled with the 1700s versions of austerity measures and crony capitalism, that lead up to the American Revolution. In the English Bill of Rights, we've got the line, "That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law."

In the era when these documents were passed, firearms were single-shot smoothbore weapons with poor accuracy and long reload times. The refinement of firearms has driven the policy debate across the centuries. It was around the early 20th century that firearms laws became more restrictive in the USA and Commonwealth, as a result of criminal activity (often banning early submachine guns in the process) and fears of a socialist uprising.

The spree killings and mass shootings in the later part of the 20th century resulted in increasingly strict laws and policies, including some rare knee-jerk legislation rammed through various legislative branches. Gun crime has decreased worldwide, but there is more than meets the eye.

Suicides by gun are the majority cause for gun death, even in the USA. A study found suicide victims would substitute other methods if firearms were unavailable. If studying the effects of suicides and firearms, the general trend of total types of suicides, and economic backgrounds of the victims, should also be taken into account. There is also the fact in the US, 85% of firearms crime are drug related. I believe that in this case, more restrictive laws is only treating a symptom, not a root cause. Legalization of certain substances, as well as treating non-violent offenders and reducing prison populations, is a better move to cut gun crime. However, the for-profit prison industry in the US desires both strong gun and drug laws to imprison more people. Even most firearms used in crimes in the US are illegally purchased or stolen from legitimate users. You're more likely to be shot in the USA by the police than any spree killer or gangster.

Even in countries with strict gun control, there is also the issue of the spree killer. Even a country with strict gun control like Norway still had a mass shooting due to one deranged maniac. The supply of maniacs like that seem to be less frequent in countries with social safety nets and civic cultures, both of which the USA has effectively gutted over the last few decades. Switzerland, meanwhile, has mandatory gun ownership for all adult males (although the military rifle is essentially treated as a 'sacred relic' and only to be used for government business). Even then, they still offer semi-automatic rifles for sale with few restrictions. Pistols, however, are more strictly regulated.

Even in a country with strict gun laws, criminal groups can find ways to acquire them. In Brazil's favelas and rural Pakistan, homemade guns are a major tradition. It's rather easy to make some firearms from scrap metal with basic tools, such as the British Sten, American Grease Gun, and the Russian AKs. Technologies that could make homemade, unregistered firearms are likewise getting cheaper and more accessible. So, what's my solution? I'm a fan of the 'freedom to fabricate' and the 'right to self defense' (even including firearms).

I prefer solutions that maximize individual freedoms and minimize the number of people in prison. My inner civil libertarian doesn't want to criminalize the possession or making of something in itself without damn good reason. However, using something for harm means you're going to be treated like any other criminal. If you ban anything that might potentially be used for evil or harm, you'd ban a whole lot of regular goods. That's why I believe online censorship regimes in the name of 'child safety' or 'anti-piracy' or 'cyber-security' are rather wasteful and ineffectual bureaucracies. No matter what the law is, there will always be those who seek to break it.

A few questions: Likewise, should the types of guns be regulated differently? How do you separate the categories? Would you regulate flintlock pistols differently than modern semi-auto pistols? Setting categories of firearms seems fairly logical in some ways, but setting the categories is hardly rational in many places. How about air guns, crossbows, and regular bows? Are you going to have different policies for "less lethal" weapons (like rubber bullets, pepper spray, etc.)?

However, there are current bottlenecks in firearms technology. One is ammo. We need brass cases full of propellant, with a projectile and primer attached. There may come a day where someone could print Metalstorm-style caseless ammo using advanced 3D printers at home, but for now, that time is in the future. As the comedy bit goes, ammo sales might be such a bottleneck, at least as far as record keeping and detective work goes. (I also imagine even desktop manufacturing might have some kind of 'fabrication fingerprinting' eventually.) Interestingly, even in the "Wild West," gun violence (and violence in general) was far lower than even contemporary American cities (as it was mostly a creation of popular media).

Currently, the political spectrum associates "gun control" and "gun control opposition" into the erroneous "left" and "right" categories. It's rather ironic that one of history's largest progressives is also a large fan of gun ownership, Mr. Teddy Roosevelt. I believe, however, that civil libertarians and shooters of all stripes might wish to collaborate on political issues in the future. There is much to gain, philosophically and politically, from such an arrangement. Imagine what the NRA, ACLU, and EFF could accomplish together even in the cesspit of US politics if they would only pull their efforts.

I believe many countries around the world use weapons law to treat symptoms, rather than causes of crime and violence. In the olden days, a journalist might travel into a dangerous place with a weapon, but nowadays, journalists are easy prey for roving death squads without guards of their own. Drug laws and prohibition empower the drug cartels that are responsible for the vast majority of gun crime deaths. Corruption allows those same criminal gangs to acquire military hardware from crooked cops or soldiers. People with no options (or think they're got nothing to lose) are more prone to 'snapping' due to social and personal isolation. I believe making medical care (including mental health) more affordable, promoting transparency, ending the drug war, and involving people in communities are the logical responses to this. An increase and diversification of social safety nets (beyond merely welfare states and families) can inhibit much in the way of anti-social behavior.

However, I understand the desire for some kind of solution, a law or policy. While I may not personally agree with it, here's a 'possible compromise' some pro-gun control friends, anti-gun control friends, and I discussed. I feel sharing the results of a positive sum experiment might be encouraging in the vacuum of real political leadership:

-Most people are able to purchase 'basic sporting' weapons without permits (or the least regulation). 'Sporting' weapons include: air guns, crossbows, bows, black powder firearms (and modern replicas), originals/replicas of historic guns (like single action revolvers for Cowboy Action Shooting or early semi-automatic pistols like the Mauser C96), single shot target pistols, manual action long-arms (lever action, bolt action, pump action rifles/shotguns), and some semi-auto rifles and shotguns (with lower ammo capacity).

-Some 'less lethal' devices are available to most citizens (such pepper spray or rubber bullet shooting gas guns). The purpose of such a weapon is to disorient or disable an attacker long enough to escape. Even 'less lethal' weapons can be lethal.

-If you have a lack of violent crime and mental disorders in your background, you could apply for a permit for a concealed carry firearm. When carried in public, it must be mounted with a camera to record each act of it firing. There's also some ammo limitations on it. A CC permit bearer has a 'duty to retreat' first and foremost, however. Lethal force is for when you are cornered or against a non-human threat (such as a rabid dog or hungry wolf). After self defense, you must inform local law enforcement what happened. CC firearms are also registered and have ballistic samples on file. Loss or theft of such a sidearm means you should immediately inform the police.

-Higher capacity magazines for 'advanced sporting' semi-autos (including pistols and rifles) and full auto weapons require clear background checks and a secure case for storage. Said case must also be wired to an alarm system in case of unauthorized removal.

-Firearms could be assembled at home without registration, so long as they are only used for recreational shooting and not intended for sale/distribution elsewhere. (This is what I call the 'Hobbyist Exemption.')

For the record, we based it on a combination of US, German, Russian, and New Zealand laws. No matter what side you are on, I hope I got your interest. There are instances of gun laws gone awry, and used solely as a means to put more people in prison. For instance, New Jersey state laws ban BB guns and even potentially list rubber bands as a 'firearm.' (Then again, NJ is hardly a good model for anything outside of corruption and organized crime.) I believe kneejerk legislation, such as something passed after a major incident, is least effective at dealing with issues like violence. The last thing we need is another PATRIOT Act or TARP bailout, after all.

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