A Philosopher's Blog

Gun Control

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2016

The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.

As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.

Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.

Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.

Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.

The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.

The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.

For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).

While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.

While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.

Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.

A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.

The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.

A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.

Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.

As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.


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9 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 17, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    America doesn’t have a gun problem, we have a sin problem.

  2. TJB said, on June 18, 2016 at 9:33 am

    Mike, congratulations on getting your facts straight. You are way ahead of most people commenting on this issue.

    Can you comment on whether you believe the AR-15 is in fact a “weapon of war”? Or does it just look like one?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 19, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      It depends on what counts as a “weapon of war.” Any weapon could be used in war, thus trivially making it a weapon of war-but this, I infer, is not what people mean when they use this phrase for rhetorical purposes. So, let us break this down.

      As far as I know, no professional army issues the AR-15 as a standard combat arm (though, no doubt, irregular forces use whatever they can get). This is because it is not a burst or automatic weapon, but a semi-automatic rifle that looks like a military arm. So, it is not a weapon of war in this sense. Interestingly enough, sidearms (typically 9mm semiautomatic pistols) and some hunting rifles (used for sniping) are issued as standard arms-making them weapons of war.

      So, I’d say that “weapon of war” is a rhetorical tool used to assert that it is a scary gun.

    • TJB said, on June 21, 2016 at 10:32 am

      Mike, bet you didn’t know the AR-15 has a grenade launcher?


      • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 22, 2016 at 3:17 pm

        Sure-the stock AR-15 has the same structure as the stock M-16 and can use the same accessories, including the grenade launcher. The AR-15 could also fire rifle grenades, with the right attachment for the grenade.

        It would also be easy enough to make a launcher to fit an AR-15 as well as other accessories, such as mounting a cut down shotgun under the barrel.

        “The possibilities for destruction are endless.”

  3. david halbstein said, on June 18, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    I think that what we have is a distortion of perception. I think most Americans would agree that we are in the midst of an epidemic of gun violence, that it has reached epic proportions. As you say, Michael, positions on gun control are led by emotions rather than logic, and emotions run high – especially right after an incident like the one in Orlando. Half the country are crying out against the ownership of guns, the other half are clearing the shelves of AR-15’s creating huge spikes in sales and in prices.

    The statistics on gun violence are actually quite surprising. First and foremost, not only are we NOT in the midst of an epidemic, but according to several studies the rate of gun homicide has gone down substantially over the last 25 years. Here is an article from the PEW research center citing those statistics:


    Further, (with a nod to ajmacdonaldjr), in looking at FBI and DOJ statistics, it would seem as though we DO have a “sin” problem rather than a gun problem. With all the attention paid to “assault rifles”, semi-automatic and automatic weapons, one would think that these weapons were the culprits for the perceived rising tide of death we see each year, but even that is skewed.

    Below is a link to the FBI expanded homicide table from 2009-2013, which shows homicide by weapon. Firearms are still the weapon of choice for murder in this country, but murder by rifle (including automatic and semiautomatic “assault rifles”) numbers below those by knives, blunt objects, and “personal weapons” like fists, feet, and even pushing. Similar tables are available pre-2009 that demonstrate the same trends.


    Here are the same statistics for 2013-2014:


    What HAS increased over the last 25 years, and what HAS grown to epic proportions is reportage, communication, the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, smart-phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers.

    The difference between today and 1993 is that, despite a 49% decrease in overall murder rate in this country (which has happened steadily over time) and a relatively small number of those murders being committed by rifles, the rifle story has “legs”. It’s in our face 24/7; it’s not just reported on the nightly news, it’s the lead of a 24-hour cable news cycle. And it’s not just TV – it’s posted everywhere on the Internet, re-posted, commented on, blogged about, and re-posted again on a growing number of social media sites.

    The fact is that politician’s careers can be made on the complete ban of assault rifles; they could potentially garner a huge groundswell of support on that issue alone – and once enacted, nothing would change. Motivated terrorists do not need AR-15’s in order to make their point. The Boston Marathon bombers certainly didn’t need them. Although they did use them, the San Bernardino shooters didn’t need them either – they had a cache of pipe bombs and tools used to make homemade weapons. The shoe bomber didn’t need a rifle, nor did those who took down the World Trade Center in 2001 and those who attempted to in 1993. Nor did Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski.

    And yet, they have our attention.

    I am not a gun owner, nor do I consider myself “pro-gun”, although I know plenty of respectable, responsible people who do own guns. I do understand that weapons technology has advanced considerably since 1776, but I strongly believe that if we are going to enact any kind of law restricting the ownership of firearms it must be done at a Constitutional level, not by a President who disrespects the Constitution and finds ways around due process (and I’m not just talking about Obama), not by political maneuvering and arm-twisting (I believe they refer to that as “sausage-making” these days). We have amended the Constitution 27 times, and in some cases the amendments have amended other amendments.

    And if we do go that route, it should be with a firm grasp of the actual facts, and not based on the emotional appeal of an endless stream of Facebook posts.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 19, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      Good points. As you note, the 24 hour national news cycle means that every such event gets attention, setting the stage for misleading vividness and hasty generalizations.

  4. david halbstein said, on June 19, 2016 at 7:22 am

    If we do have a gun problem in this country, it is masked by irrational emotion on both sides of the argument. Assault rifles, which draw most of the attention in the debate, account for fewer homicides than knives, blunt objects and “personal weapons” (fists, feet, and “pushing”). We are the victims of mass hysteria brought about by a 24/7 news cycle and posts and re-posts and re-re-posts on Facebook, Twitter, Google, blogs and a dozen other social media sites. Murder rates have gone down steadily since 1993; last year they reached a 49% decline over those years, but Internet use was created and has taken over our lives since then. Hard not to be emotional when it’s in our face, in our hands, in our pockets everywhere we go.

    • ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 22, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      We also need to keep in mind that our imagistic culture (television, internet) has created a population that can longer think critically: “When a culture disdains literacy for the important functions of public discourse and replaces that with a medium that focuses on format and style — and therefore entertainment — then you begin to get… you have a situation comparable to what Huxley meant by the drug soma… that everyone is kept sort of pacified, amused, entertained. President Regan is entertaining… Dan Rather is entertaining… even the nightly news, for all of its gory stories, is entertaining, because the film footage is exciting. The religion on television is amusing. Commercials are very amusing and entertaining. So that, as we move into this imagistic culture of short duration, dynamic, and amusing images, we have a population that becomes pacified… that no longer is capable of the kind of sustained reflection and analytical thought that I think is usually characteristic of literate cultures where typography is vital to every day’s functioning.” ~ Neil Postman (1985) Source: Neil Postman – PBS Currents (Literacy Lost) https://youtu.be/VWNHLKW7n5c

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