A Philosopher's Blog

Gun Violence, Once More

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2013
The most common type of gun confiscated by pol...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.

As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.

I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.

In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.

While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).

In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.

Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.

It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.

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Printing Guns

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 8, 2013

3D printing, which allows the creation of plastic objects using special printers, is a much hyped technology. While it does have the possibility of revolutionizing manufacturing, it has also raised some concerns. One of these concerns is that such printers could be used to create guns. It turns out that this is a legitimate concern: recently Defense Distributed successfully created a working pistol using a $8,000 3D printer.  This raises the specter of people using such printers to create guns for nefarious purpose and thus is a matter of some worry to folks in law enforcement and those who worry about guns in general.

While the idea of criminals, terrorists and others printing their own guns is alarming, it is important to consider the actual nature of the alleged threat. One point well worth considering is the fact that the printer used to make the gun cost $8,000. While there are cheaper 3D printers available, those that could be used to make a working gun are all far more expensive that “real” guns. For $8,000 a person could outfit herself with a few assault rifles and handguns, plus ammunition and accessories. A second point worth considering is that the printed gun is not much of a gun: it is a single shot, low caliber weapon. While it could hurt or even kill, it is not much of a weapon. As such, it seems unlikely that there will be a new wave of crime or massacres involving printed pistols.

It could be replied that the worry is that people who cannot otherwise acquire guns legally will be able to buy a printer and print up a gun. The obvious reply to this is that someone who wants to illegally acquire a gun can do so much cheaper than buying an expensive 3D printer. However, even if it is supposed that the person cannot acquire a “real” gun illegally, the 3D printer would be a rather expensive option when a person can just make a gun using perfectly legal hardware that can be acquired at a hardware or home supply store. This sort of improvised gun (the most common of which is called a “zip gun”) has been around a long time and can be easily made. Directions for these weapons are readily available on the internet and the parts are relatively cheap. For those who cannot acquire bullets, there are even plans to make pneumatic weapons. The printed gun just automates the process of making a homemade gun at a relatively high cost. As such, the worry about the printed gun is not a new worry-it is just a variant of the worry that people will make their own guns at home. While this does happen, people have (obviously) preferred to acquire professionally made guns when engaging in crimes. Thus, being worried about the threat posed by 3D printers is rather like being worried about the threat posed by hardware/home supply stores. While people can use them to make weapons, people are vastly more likely to use them for legitimate purposes and get their weapons some other way.

If a person cannot acquire a “real” gun and they want to do harm, then I suspect that they will forgo making homemade guns and will instead go with homemade bombs. After all, a homemade bomb can do considerable damage and is far more effective than a homemade gun for such purposes. As such, there seems to be little reason to be worried about people printing up guns in order to commit crimes or engage in terror attacks.

In addition to the concern that people will print guns to bypass laws, there is also the concern that people will make plastic guns in order to bypass metal detectors. While the current printed gun uses a metal firing pin, it would be easy enough to get such a pin through security. The rounds would, of course, pose a bit of challenge-although plastic casings and bullets could be made.

While this is a point of concern, there are two points worth noting. First, as mentioned above, the printed gun is a single-shot low caliber weapon, which rather limits the damage a person can do with it. Second, while the gun is plastic, it is not invisible-it could be found by inspection. As such, the threat posed by such guns is extremely low.

While the current technology can produce a very limited gun, there is still the concern that advances in 3D printing will allow the production of much more effective firearms. For example, a 3D printer that could produce parts made out of metal or material as strong as metal could make a “real” gun. This would allow people without the skill needed to operate metalworking tools to make “real” guns and this would be more worrisome than the plastic gun. However, such 3D metal printers would presumably be very expensive to own and operate. As such, people would no doubt still go with “real” guns. As such, this is not a worry. Yet.

Mr. Wilson, the person behind the 3D printed gun, plans to make the gun design available and claims to be motivated by his view of liberty. In a remark that will no doubt frighten and anger some, Wilson said , “There is a demand of guns – there just is. There are states all over the world that say you can’t own firearms – and that’s not true anymore. I’m seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want. It’s not up to the political players any more.”

What is most striking about Wilson’s remark is not what he says about guns, but about what he sees as the potential impact of 3D printing. That is, with the right sort of 3D printer a person could make almost any object s/he wanted. This is what probably frightens some people the most about 3D printing: it could radically change the way manufacturing and hence ownership works.

Getting back to the matter of guns, Wilson was asked whether he would be responsible for what people might do with his design. His reply was “recognize the tool might be used to harm other people – that’s what the tool is – it’s a gun. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not do it – or a reason not to put it out there.” This is, of course, nothing new-the same question could be asked of the person who designs any weapon or any tool. In the case of Wilson, while he is putting out a design for printing a gun, he obviously did not invent the gun and this would mitigate his responsibility (if he has any). Also, he is no more accountable for misdeeds done with his gun than the designer of a a “real” gun is responsible for what people do with the guns built from his design.

Overall, the printed gun does provide something for some folks to worry about and a target for politicians and pundits who are eager to pontificate and pass panic prohibitions. However, it is not (as of yet) a real danger.  My main worry is not that I will be shot with a printed gun, but that politicians will use this as an excuse to interfere with the development of  promising technology.

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Joe With a Shotgun

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2013
English: A view of the break-action of a typic...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joe Biden recently fired off both barrels when asked a question about guns and self defense.  He said, “Kate,if you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrel shotgun, have the shells, a 12-gauge shotgun.”

This is the same advice he gave his wife, Jill: “I said, ‘Jill, if there’s ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony here. Walk out and put that double-barrel shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house’ … You don’t need an AR-15—it’s harder to aim … It’s harder to use, and in fact you don’t need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun! Buy a shotgun!”

While Joe is often cast as a loose shotgun, his remarks are actually quite rational in two ways. First, he is right about shotguns. Second, while his remarks seem a bit wacky, they will held the administration.

Getting to the first point, Joe is right that a shotgun is a good choice for home defense. As he notes, a shotgun is very easy to aim-just point it towards the target and the pellet spread (assuming you are using shot rather than a slug) will probably hit the target. Shotguns also do good damage against unarmored targets, such as the typical intruder. He doesn’t mention that the pellets from a shotgun have less range and penetration power than rifle and even pistol bullets, but for home defense that is generally good. After all, a rifle bullet can shoot through walls (even exterior walls) and hit an innocent person in the next room, next house or even the next block.

His remark about firing a blast off the balcony is a bit wacky, but it does make a certain amount of sense-after all, if you can scare someone away without shooting them, that is probably good for everyone involved. Best not to use both barrels, though-unless you can reload quickly. Of course, shooting a gun off into the air could raise some legal problems and there is the obvious concern about where the pellets will fall.

In regards to the second point, Joe’s seemingly off-message remarks are actually useful for making the administration seem to be limited in its intentions regarding guns. That is, when Joe says “buy a shotgun!”, that is hardly anti-gun. Rather, he makes the point that he is not against guns in general but against assault rifles.

This may seem like an odd position-after all, he lauded the power of the shotgun as a defense weapon. However, it could be claimed that his position does make sense. After all, a person using a double-barreled shotgun will not be able to shoot as fast as a person with an AR-15 and this would, presumably, have a chance of reducing the damage done by a person in a mass shooting.  Of course, it could be countered that a person armed with a shotgun could kill people fairly quickly and perhaps even more easily. After all, if a shotgun is easier to use, then someone who is not a good shot could actually do more damage with a shotgun than with a rifle or pistols.

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Are Guns Analogous to Cars?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2013
Case O' Guns

Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

One common strategy in the various gun debates is to compare guns and other dangerous things, such as cars. Interestingly, both those who favor and those who oppose increased limitations make use of this comparison.

Since this is an age of micro-communication, the comparison is often made rapidly and without adequate development. However, it does seem useful to expand a bit on the comparison and present some properly developed arguments.

An analogical argument is an argument in which one concludes that two things are alike in a certain respect because they are alike in other respects. Formally, an argument by analogy looks like this:

  • Premise 1: X and Y have properties P,Q,R.
  • Premise 2: X has property Z.
  • Conclusion: Y has property Z.


The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.).  The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. Since this is an inductive argument, the truth of the premises is supposed to make the conclusion likely to be true rather than certainly true.

A Škoda Superb II car. Français : Une automobi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The strength (quality) of an analogical argument depends on three factors. First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the better the argument. Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. Now the basics of the argument by analogy have been presented, I can proceed to the main attraction—comparing guns and cars.

Those who favor increased limitations on guns can avail themselves of an analogy between guns and cars that involves the fact that driving is highly regulated. To be specific, the argument for more restrictions on guns could be framed as follows:



  • Premise 1: Cars and guns are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: The operation of a car is extensively regulated by law and requires that the operator be properly trained and licensed.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the operation of a gun should be extensively regulated by law and require that the operator be properly trained and licensed.

Since this is a very brief argument, the specific regulations, licensing and so on would need to be properly specified in a very extensive case for more extensively regulating guns. Despite its concise presentation, the argument does seem appealing. After all, if I cannot drive my truck around without having a license and insurance, it would seem to make sense that (for similar reasons) I should not be able to have a gun without being properly licensed and insured. At the core of the justification is, of course, the fact that both guns and cars are machines that can cause considerable damage either by accident or intent.

Despite the appeal of this comparison, there are differences between cars and guns that could break the analogy. The most obvious is, at least in the United States, that gun ownership is taken to be a legal and moral right, whereas driving is regarded as a privilege. Intuitively, restricting a right would require stronger justification than restricting a privilege.

Interestingly, the analogy can be accepted but it could be claimed that it does not justify more limitations on guns. After all, the regulation of cars covers the operation of the car in public—that is, on roads where there are other people. If I wish to drive my truck around only on my own land, then I do not require a license and the regulations governing this are rather limited.

In the case of guns, a person who wishes to bring a gun into public places generally needs a concealed weapon permit (which requires training and an extensive background check). Hunting, even on private land, also requires a license (which requires proof of training). A person can, however, travel to a legitimate shooting range with her gun without a license—but the gun must be properly stored (typically in a case). A person can also have a weapon in her dwelling (with some exceptions) and even fire it on her property, provided that the discharge of firearms is not restricted there (which is most often the case anywhere but out in the country).

Because of this, it could be concluded that the gun laws are already comparable to the laws governing cars and hence there is no need to increase the restrictions on guns. This could, of course be countered by arguing that guns are different from cars in ways that would warrant more extensive regulations. However, this would obviously involve abandoning the argument by analogy that compared cars and guns.

As noted above, it is also possible to draw a comparison between cars and guns aimed at showing that there should not be severe restrictions on gun ownership.


  • Premise 1: Guns and cars are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: Private ownership of guns should be severely restricted.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted.


Obviously enough, those taking a pro-gun position would take this analogy to lead to what they would hope most would regard as an absurdity or at least unacceptable, namely that the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted. Behind the argument is, of course, the principle that what justifies severely restricting ownership of a dangerous machine is its capacity to cause harm intentionally or accidentally. By this principle, if gun ownership should be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm, then car ownership should also be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm. Guns and cars both have causal roles in the harms caused intentionally or accidentally by people (and cars also contribute extensively to pollution and climate change making them potentially more damaging than guns).

Just as those who favor severe restrictions on guns tend to claim that the police can provide the protection citizens require, it could be claimed that public transport would provide the transportation that citizens require. Obviously enough, someone who favors severe restrictions on cars and is in favor of public transportation might regard this argument as reasonable rather than a reduction to absurdity.

This analogy can be countered by pointing out differences between guns and cars. One obvious difference is that guns are designed to cause harm while cars are designed to transport people. Cars are lethal weapons—but unintentionally so. However, it is not clear that this difference is relevant to the matter of regulation. After all, the fact that a car is not designed to kill people does not make those killed by cars any less dead. What seems to matter is the impact of the machine and not its intended function.

This can be countered by contending that guns do not have a legitimate use in civilian hands that would justify tolerating the harms involving guns. In contrast, the value of cars warrants tolerating the harms and deaths involving cars. This case can be made and would involve assessing the value of guns and cars relative to the harms done by allowing people to privately own them. That is, how many deaths it is acceptable to pay for private ownership of cars versus private ownership of guns. If cars are worth the cost and guns are not, then the analogy would break, thus allowing private ownership of guns to be severely restricted while allowing far less restriction on the private ownership of cars.

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The Founders, the Future, the First & the Second

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 4, 2013
Summer's End. Lexington Green, 11 September 20...

Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the discussion over guns and gun control, one interesting approach is to note that the authors of the Second Amendment wrote in a time in which the most advanced weapons were muskets, sailing ships and muzzle loading cannons. Folks who take this approach usually contend that because of the radical difference between the weapon technology of the 1700s and now, the Second Amendment needs to be considered within the modern context. A common interpretation from such folks is that the right to keep and bears arms should thus not be taken to apply to high capacity magazines and assault rifles. Some folks also attempt to predict what the founders would say about modern weapons. Naturally, the folks who support additional gun laws sometimes put forth the view that the founders would clearly oppose civilian ownership of weapons with high capacity magazines and assault rifles. Presumably the founders would modify the amendment as follows:

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. This right does not apply to high capacity magazines, assault rifles and scary looking arms in general.

Naturally, folks who favor guns are quite confident that the founders would consider modern arms to be arms and thus fall under the amendment.

There is, obviously enough, considerable risk in speculating what the founders might or might not think about modern weapons. On the one hand, Ben Franklin was visionary enough to consider the possibility of airborne troops and thus it is not hard to imagine the founders envisioning the possibility of weapons more advanced than those of their own time.  On the other hand, perhaps they could not have envisioned the fire power provided by today’s weapons and might have restricted gun rights if they had.  However, we will never know what they would think about the guns of today since they are long dead. As such, we rather have to go with what was written.

Naturally, what was written can be, as folks have claimed, taken as not applying to modern arms because of the change in technology. However, this would seem to be a problematic approach. After all, suppose that the principle is accepted that the constitution only applies to the technology available at the time it was written (and amended). While this would entail that modern weapons do not fall under the Second Amendment, it would also entail that all the advances in technology beyond the 1700s would not be covered by the First Amendment. As such, First Amendment rights would no apply to film, blogs, television and so on. Given this absurd result, it seems sensible to reject that principle and accept that just as the First Amendment applies to today’s technology, so does the Second.

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Dr. King & Guns

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2013


One rather odd aspect of the recent debate regarding gun laws is the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior would support the NRA position on guns. Given that Dr. King was assassinated with a firearm and preached against violence, this sort of claim seems both ironic and somewhat distasteful. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider Dr. King’s views regarding guns and gun rights.


Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipediws regarding guns in the context of his moral and philosophical views.


On the one hand, there are not unreasonable grounds for claiming that Dr. King supported and accepted gun rights.


In his “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. King made it clear that he respected and accepted the constitution: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Given that the second amendment is part of the constitution, it is not unreasonable to accept that Dr. King respected that amendment. However, this inference would obviously be somewhat weak—after all, he might value certain aspects of the constitution while also taking issue with certain parts (such as counting African-Americans as 3/5 of a person).


As far as more practical evidence, Dr. King owned guns in the 1950s for the purpose of self-protection in the face of death threats from racists—in face, his house was described as an arsenal and was guarded by armed supporters. He even applied for (and was denied) a concealed weapons permit.


Given Dr. King’s use of armed protection and his ownership of guns, it is not unreasonable to infer that he accepted the right of self-protection and took this right to include the possession and presumably the use of firearms. As such, it would not seem to be a stretch to claim that there would be some overlap between the views generally presented by the NRA and Dr. King’s own views regarding guns.


Of course, it is well worth noting that Dr. King was clearly in danger of assassination (and he was ultimately assassinated) and hence his views at the time must be taken within this context—a context that also included the fact that Dr. King had good reason to believe that the police might not be inclined to act in his defense. As such, the sort of principle at work here would seem to be that the possession of guns would be acceptable when a person is in clear danger from wrongly harm and there is a very reasonable expectation that the state will not offer protection against that danger. As such, to infer what Dr. King would think about guns in more “normal” contexts would be a matter of speculation.


While the above does provide some reasons to believe that Dr. King accepted gun rights in the 1950s, the story would not be complete without considering what occurred and was said latter.


In the “I have a Dream” speech that made his respect for the constitution clear, Dr. King also made it clear that he opposed the use of violence—at least in the context of the struggle for civil rights. He said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” This view is, of course, supported by his use of the methods of civil disobedience and his well-known opposition to the use of violence.


It might, of course, be pointed out that his rejection of violence would seem to be in a very specific context—namely that of the struggle for civil rights. It could also be argued that this approach was motivated primarily by practical reasons, such as the realization that the use of violence would not achieve his goals. As such, it could be contended that he did not reject his 1950s view of guns as a means of defense but rather had adopted non-violence as a specific tactic for a political struggle. After all, the fact that a person supports non-violence in politics does not entail a rejection of gun rights or the use of force in other contexts.


However, Dr. King directly addressed the matter of guns and gun violence. In response to the assassination of John Kennedy, King said “…by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”


This would seem to clearly indicate that Dr. King’s later view of guns included a rejection of the idea that guns should be available for purchase “at will.” While this is open to interpretation, this does seem to suggest a support for limiting the ability of people to purchase guns.


It is interesting to note that the current NRA spokesmen and Dr. King clearly agree on one point, namely the influence of movies and television on creating a culture of violence. However, this obviously does not entail that Dr. King and the NRA share the same general views. After all, Dr. King made his views on the ready availability of firearms for sale clear and this obviously does not match the position of the NRA.




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Background Checks

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 11, 2013
Calamity Jane, notable pioneer frontierswoman ...

Photo by H.R. Locke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary focused America’s attention on the matters of guns, violence and mental illness. The attention has faded substantially, as it always does after terrible events. However, politicians, pundits, and interested parties have remained focused on these matters.

As might be imagined, there is a renewed will to pass new laws regarding guns.  For the most part, the focus has been on the usual suspects: assault rifles, large capacity magazines, and the “loophole” that allows citizens to sell guns to people without background checks. I have written about semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines before, so I will focus on the loophole in question.

In general, when a person goes to a gun store to buy a gun, she has to pass a background check. This process is fairly quick, so a person can usually walk into a Walmart or other place that sells guns and walk out with a shotgun or rifle. Pistols typically require a waiting period, which has always struck me as a bit odd. I’ve actually worked in a gun store and have bought guns, so I have seen this process from both sides. I have never seen anyone fail the background check, but that is most likely because folks who would fail the check generally know they will do so. Also, some of the folks who would fail a background check can probably just get guns through  illegal channels. However, no doubt some people do fail the check and are denied the gun they want to buy.

The rules are rather different when a person is buying a gun from a private citizen (that is, someone who is not selling firearms as a dealer). If I have a gun  I want to sell and Calamity Jane  wants to buy it, I can sell it to her with no waiting period and no background check. That is, she could just saunter over to my house, toss down some cash, and saunter away with the gun. This is, currently, perfectly legal.

This “loophole” is sometimes called the “gun show loophole” because individuals often go to gun shows to sell or trade firearms. While dealers still need to make checks at gun shows, individuals do not. It is, not, however, limited to gun shows.

While this might seem odd, it actually is not that much different from other businesses. For example, if I want to run a business, I would typically need a license and I would face various regulations and restrictions. However, if I want to sell my truck, laptop, or dog to someone, I can do that with little in the way of regulation as long as I am acting as an individual and not as a business owner. The idea that a person has a right to sell her property in this manner is rather well-established and is a key part of the rights of property that are fundamental to a free society (in which almost nothing is free).

Getting back to the sale of guns by private individuals, a restriction on this would seem to violate this basic right. After all, guns are not illegal and hence reselling a gun would not be comparable to an individual dealing in an illegal product like heroin or chemical weapons.  However, some folks are rather concerned about this right.

The obvious concern is that someone who would not pass a background check, such as someone with the wrong sort of criminal record, would be able to bypass the check by buying a gun from another individual. Thus, by allowing individuals to sell (or give away) guns without a background check, the background checks become all but useless since they can be easily avoided by anyone who can find someone who will sell him a gun. As some folks see it, the solution is to not allow guns to be sold without such background checks.

Since private citizens generally lack the means to run such checks (and it would be a violation of privacy to simply allow everyone to check on everyone else), this would entail that all gun sales would have to be conducted in a way that would allow such a check to take place, such as by having the transaction occur through a licensed dealer. Presumably this would also have to extend to gifts and inheritances-after all, those are also ways a person could get a gun without having a background check. This would, of course, be somewhat inconvenient. However, it might be worth it, provided that it had a significant impact on crime.

On the one hand, it would seem that it would have at least some effect. After all, it would make it somewhat harder for people who could not pass a background check to get a gun via legal means.

On the other hand, the effect might be rather limited.  After all, anyone who knew about the law, was law-abiding and would pass a background check would go through this process to get a gun. But they are the sort of people who could just buy a gun directly from a dealer and also the sort of people who are unlikely to commit gun crimes. Those who would not pass the check could still acquire guns in other ways, such as the various illegal ways (theft, illegal gun sales, and so on). Another rather important concern is that the murders that have served to refocus attention on gun laws would not have been prevented by closing this “loophole.” After all, the killer at Sandy Hook would not have been prevented from getting those guns by a closing of this loophole. However, it is worth determining what impact such a law would have on violence. If it would reduce crime, then it might be worth the inconvenience. Likewise, making tougher restrictions on driving (such as not allowing people to drive when they could walk, bike or run) could save lives-but the question is whether we think it is worth the inconvenience.

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High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2012
English: A Vektor LM5, the semi-automatic vers...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The mass killing that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary school in December of 2012 ignited the debate over guns once again. Sadly, the event followed what is becoming a script: a mentally disturbed person seeks out a concentration of unarmed targets and commits murder until stopped. The American media then focuses the spotlight on the issues raised by the event and the pundits and commentators appear to say the usual things about guns, laws, and the mentally ill. As usual, the rote blaming of video games and movies also occurs.


Being a sane and ethical person, I was saddened by the terrible murders. I would certainly prefer that such an event never occur, which is true of most people. As might be imagined, there are many suggestions regarding what should be done to reduce the chances of such murders occurring again. One area of focus is, not surprisingly, on the weapons.


Folks in the media tend to focus obsessively on the weapons used in such terrible crimes and, somewhat ironically given this obsession, often display their ignorance of such weapons. The murderer at Sandy Hook had two semi-automatic pistols (a Glock 10mm and a Sig Sauer 9mm) and a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle (essentially a civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle). Watching the media coverage, I noticed considerable focus on the fact that these weapons are semi-automatic and the way the matter was discussed seemed to be aimed at creating the impression that this was somehow unusual or new. However, semi-automatic weapons date back over a century and they are rather common. For those who are ignorant of weapons, a semi-automatic weapon is (crudely put) such that once manually cocked it will fire a round with each pull of the trigger with the weapon automatically chambering a new round and cocking after each shot (until the rounds are exhausted). This is in contrast with weapons that require manual reloading and cocking. For example, the classic Winchester lever action rifle (the one seen in cowboy movies) requires that the user work a lever to eject the empty shell casing, load a new round and “cock” the gun. Fully automatic weapons, such as a machine gun, will fire until the trigger is released or the ammunition is expended (or a jam occurs).


The main concern expressed regarding semi-automatic weapons is that they have a higher rate of fire relative to weapons such as revolvers, lever action rifles, pump shotguns and other such weapons. As such, a person armed with a semi-automatic weapon can potentially kill people faster than a comparably skilled person who is armed with a slower weapon. It is also commonly asserted that there is no legitimate use for such weapons and this is often expressed in terms of their not being suitable for hunting. From these claims it is often argued that such weapons should be banned to increase safety. The rather obvious concern is whether or not such a ban would have an impact on such incidents.


One obvious concern is that semi-automatic weapons are only marginally faster than many other weapons, such as revolvers and pump shotguns. As such, even if a potential killer did not have access to semi-automatic weapons, such a person could still kill many people. However, it could be argued that the possibility of slight to moderate reduction in carnage would justify a ban on such weapons. There is, however, the rather obvious fact that someone who is willing to murder other people is probably not going to decide to call off his planned (or unplanned) slaughter because he does not have semi-automatic weapons.


Of course, it is not just the semi-automatic aspect of such weapons that gets attention. There is also the concern that they often have high capacity magazines. A typical 9mm pistol magazine holds 15 rounds, although extended magazines can be purchased.  More powerful handguns, such as the .45, typically hold fewer rounds. Military style rifles typically hold 20-30 rounds, although very high capacity drum clips (so named because they look like drums) are also available.


The concern with high capacity magazines is that the user of the weapon can fire more without reloading, thus increasing his ability to sustain fire. Reloading, obviously, takes time away from shooting and a person who is reloading is effectively unarmed and thus more vulnerable to being taken out by an intended target. As such, high capacity magazines make mass killings easier and thus presumably more likely to occur.


As with the semi-automatic feature of guns, it is often claimed that there is no legitimate reason for civilian weapons to have high capacity magazines. After all, as is often pointed out, hunters are typically restricted in the number of rounds they are allowed to have in their guns and this is usually a low number, such as three.


Combining these claims, one can argue that high capacity magazines should be banned—as was done in the 1990s.


One rather obvious concern is that even if a potential killer had access only to low capacity weapons, he could work around this limitation in two ways. One way is to simply carry more weapons and switch them as their magazines are exhausted. Another way is to practice reloading. Swapping clips can be done very rapidly and even revolvers have speed loaders that can fill the entire cylinder in about the time it would otherwise take to put a single round in the weapon.  While lack of access to high capacity clips would have some impact on the rate at which a person can kill, the impact would not seem to be considerable. There is also the obvious fact that a lack of high capacity magazines certainly would not deter a would be mass murderer from engaging in murder.


Much of the media coverage of the terrible murders in Connecticut has described the .223 Bushmaster as a high powered weapon. While the .223 round is more powerful than most pistol rounds, it is actually not a high powered round compared to the rounds used in actual high powered hunting rifles, sniper rifles and battle rifles. After all, many hunting rifles are designed to kill large animals such as deer and bear with single shots. Naturally, a .223 round can kill a person—but to characterize it as a high powered round seems to be either a mark of ignorance or an attempt to make the weapon seem more frightening.


Somewhat ironically, high-powered rifles actually do have a legitimate role in hunting (of course, some people consider hunting an illegitimate activity). Most of the lighter rounds (such as the .223 and the 9mm) were actually intended to be used against human targets. Banning actual high powered weapons would seem to have little impact since they are generally not the weapon of choice for such murders. Banning the lower powered weapons would make some sense—unless one considers that killers would simply go with the actual high powered weapons and this might actually result in more deaths.


On the face of it, it would seem that focusing on the usual suspects (high capacity, high power semi-automatic weapons) would have little impact. After all, people intent on slaughter would simply turn to alternatives.


I turn now to the general matter of gun bans. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that the sale of new guns was banned. This could be a ban on specific types of weapons (such as assault weapons or scary weapons) or a general ban on all guns.


Even if such a ban became law tomorrow, there would still be millions of guns in the hands of the public. While some guns will break, get confiscated by the police or be otherwise taken out of circulation, it will take a very long time for the existing base of guns to be reduced significantly by normal attrition. After all, a well-made gun will last a very long time if properly maintained.


This, of course, the fact that the process would be slow is not a reason to not have a weapon ban. However, it is worth keeping in mind that even if the ban went into effect yesterday, it would be a very long time before it had a significant effect. There is also the fact that if someone who is intent on mass murder cannot get a gun, then he is very likely to use some other means, such as explosives or even a knife (as occurred in China).


Because of the slowness of natural attrition, it might be suggested that the government should pass a law allowing private weapons to be confiscated by the state. One approach would be for the state to buy the guns and then destroy them (or equip the police with them). This would be an expensive endeavor and, of course, many gun owners would refuse to part with their guns—even if they were offered fair market value.


A second approach would be for the government to simply seize guns (using force if need be) on the grounds upon which any illegal possession can be seized by the state. This raises the moral concern about violating property rights and also raises a very practical concern: some people will see this as the fulfillment of their once paranoid fear that the government would be coming for their guns. While some people will yield to the superior firepower of the state, it seems likely that others will resist such attempts violently, resulting in injuries and death. There is also the matter of the broader impact, such as how what would seem to be a clear violation of the Constitution would be perceived. Criminals would, of course, not turn over their weapons and would no doubt be pleased that the general population had been disarmed by the state—thus making them easier targets. When considering such an approach, such costs should be carefully considered. This is not to say that the results would not be worth the cost, but this is something that we should rationally consider. If it is worth the cost, then this is something that should stand rational scrutiny and not require an appeal to emotions, however understandable those emotions might be.


While I, in general, like guns I would feel slightly safer in a world without guns. Of course, I know the history of violence fairly well and know that people would just go back to other ways of killing and probably invent some new ones.


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Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2011
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Jared Loughner was able to legally purchase the gun he allegedly used to kill and wound people in Arizona. As with every such incident, people are wondering how he was able to legally purchase a gun.

The obvious answer was that he was legally able to purchase a gun because apparently nothing had been legally done to ensure that he did not do so.  While he had apparently been removed from the community college because of his behavior, his apparent instability was not reported to the relevant authorities. In any case, even if he had been diagnosed as being mentally ill, this would not have prevented him from legally buying a gun. By Arizona law a person has to be ruled mentally ill by a judge before he can be denied the right to purchase a gun on the grounds that he is mentally ill.

While Jared Loughner was apparently removed from school, he was never ruled mentally ill by a judge. As such, when the background check was conducted, nothing was amiss and he was able to legally purchase the gun.

Since it seems reasonable to keep guns away from people who are mentally ill, it seems reasonable that there needs to be a change in the laws or with they way they are currently enforced.

On one hand, the laws seem to be adequate. After all, people who are judged mentally ill cannot legally buy guns. It seems reasonable to require that a due process be followed before people can be ruled mentally ill and that this process should offer suitable protections to people to avoid abuses. After all, ruling someone mentally ill is not something that should be done lightly and we should be careful to sacrifice rights for the hope of greater security. Naturally, no laws are perfect and terrible things will happen. To use an analogy, people who legally get licenses sometimes get drunk and cause terrible accidents-even when people know that they are drinkers.

On the other hand, repeated incidents of mentally troubled people getting guns legally and then shooting people does show that there might be a serious problem that needs to be addressed. One factor worth considering is that there needs to be more communication between schools and the legal authorities in regards to troubled students.

Of course, this raises concerns about privacy and also the practical matter of how to fund the sort of bureaucracy that would be needed to handle these situations.

Another factor worth considering is that the system for background checks probably needs to be improved to ensure that the information is accurate and up to date. This is, of course, a practical problem that requires adequate funding as well as adequate competence. Folks who are skeptical about the state’s competence will no doubt be worried that people who should be excluded from buying guns will not be on the list and folks who should be allowed to buy guns will end up on the list by error (as happened a lot with the no fly list). However, this is a reason to be careful about the information and not a compelling reason not to use such information.

One matter of great concern is, of course, the fact that gun ownership is a constitutional right. As such, impinging on this right is a serious matter. Of course, people have argued that it is correct to impinge on other rights so as to ensure safety. As such, the sort of arguments used to justify violating or impinging on rights to counter terrorism could be re-tooled a bit to argue for restricting gun ownership. In my own case, I am inclined to be wary of sacrificing rights in the name of security-a position I consistently hold whether it is a matter of privacy rights, due process rights or gun rights.

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The 1,000 Feet Law

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 12, 2011
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Law making is often a reactive sort of thing: something bad happens and lawmakers rush to crank out a new law in response. While the bad situations sometimes do show a need for a new law (or a change in the old laws), it can be unwise to legislate when passions are still strong. Deciding on a new law, like other important decisions, is general best left to when cool and rational reflection is possible.

Just a few days after the shooting, laws are being seriously proposed. One is to ban the sale of high capacity magazines and the other is to make it illegal to knowingly carry a gun within “1,000 feet of the president, vice president, members of Congress or judges of the Federal Judiciary.”

In the case of the clip ban, it seems unlikely that this would have much of an effect beyond creating a buying surge on the part of gun owners. Even now gun stores are reporting a surge in sales because people are worried that a ban will be put into effect or that gun laws will be otherwise change.

The ban could, perhaps,  have some small impact. If someone decides to go on a rampage and has not stocked up on high capacity clips, then he might have some difficulty finding them and perhaps be forced to reload or switch guns somewhat more often when shooting, thus possibly reducing the overall damage done. However, a person would almost certainly not cancel a planned rampage based on a lack of high capacity clips.

The 1,00o feet law seems like it would also be rather infective. As people have been quick to point out that it is already illegal to shoot people. Making it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of these officials is certainly not going to serve as a deterrent if someone already intends to make an attempt at murder.

It could be replied that the law would allow someone to be subject to an extra charge if they tried to shoot an official. So, for example, on top of an attempted murder (or murder) charge, a person could be charged with breaking that law as well. While this has some appeal, it seems unlikely that this sort of extra charge would be needed in such cases.

Another reply is that this law could allow police to check people within 1,000 feet of an official for guns and to arrest people who have them. This would, it could be argued, protect the officials and the people around them. At least from someone who is unwilling to take a shot from 1,001 feet

While this does have some appeal, it does raise concerns about privacy. After all, the mere possibility that someone has a gun does not seem to warrant checking people who happen to be within 1,000 feet of an official. That would seem to be a violation of a Constitutional right. If people are not checked for guns, then the law would seem to be limited to charging people after they have gone for a gun with the intent to shoot (which would already seem to be a crime) or charging people who openly bring guns to within 1,000 feet of an official.  This might not be a bad idea in the eyes of some. After all, Tea Party folks were sometimes inclined to bring guns to political events involving officials and this law would seem to allow them to be arrested for doing so. This might, however, be seen as a violation of certain rights.

The proposed law also seems to have some other problems as well. When I first heard about the proposal, the story just reported that it would be illegal to have  a gun within 1,000 feet of an official. This, naturally enough, struck me as absurd. After all, 1,000 feet is a rather long distance (about 333 yards or 3.3 football fields) and it is easy enough to imagine someone innocently being within this distance while in possession of a gun. For example, someone might live next door to an official or drive by one while on the way to go hunting.  When I learned that the proposed law required that the person knows that they are within 1,000 feet of an official, it seemed somewhat less absurd. However, this law would seem to ban anyone who lives near an official from owning guns. It would also seem to ban people from going hunting or shooting with officials or even be in the area. Presumably this could be sorted out by more specific details in the law that make exceptions for such cases.

It might be pointed out that guns are also not allowed within 1,000 feet of schools (which somehow still fails to prevent people from bringing guns to school) and hence the law is reasonable.

Of course, there are some rather important differences between schools and officials: schools have fixed, known locations and are easy to identify as schools. Officials are mobile and not always easy to identify. Of course, this would enable people to appeal to the “knowingly” part of the proposed law if they happened to get within 1,000 feet of an official they did not recognize.

Of course, if the proposed law is rife with exceptions, it might merely amount to making it illegally to knowingly bring a gun within 1,000 feet of an official with the intent to shoot him/her. However, that already seems to fall under existing laws.

Given the apparent absurdity of the law, it might be suspected that it is being proposed so it can be tagged onto other laws and provide a reason for not passing those laws. After all, laws are often proposed with the express intent of being un-passable.

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