Attractors, Goals, and Guns: Part I

I had a late night debate with several friends over the merits of gun control and realized, in the process, that it’s an almost perfect test case for adaptive co-management in complex systems. It’s a policy issue where traditional legalistic approaches, like banning, fail and more creative measures are needed. Even more interesting, unlike many political debates, it’s a debate where most people would agree on a similar objective: reducing gun crime.

It’s useful to start this with my own position: I despite most gun ownership and possession, especially handguns. Unlike rifles, they’re purely people-killing machines. People don’t often rob people or do drive-by’s with deer rifles. Nor do people hunt deer with concealed weapons. But I also recognized that if I lived in a violent city, like Manila, I’d be inclined to purchase a weapon only because so many other people have guns and wish to do harm. I wish they could just be banned and *poof*, they’re gone. But nothing in social systems ever works that easily…

What’s the Goal?

This is a tougher question than it first appears. When we say we want to get rid of guns, why? Is it to reduce overall gun fatalities? Is it to reduce violent crime where guns are used? Or is it to remove the threat of planned violent crime like armed robberies? Each of these is very different and each has both different wider implications if we were to stay logically consistent and different policy recommendations.

In my own opinion, the first goal “to reduce gun fatalities” isn’t a very good one. My reasoning is fourfold, the first being intentionality. Consider for a moment the question of which is morally more repugnant: Hitler ordering the deaths of 6 million Jews or Mao’s 50 million famine deaths caused by incompetence, pride, and negligence? It’s a difficult question when put like that, but I would argue that, by default, we feel more angered by the intentional killings of the Holocaust than the mostly unintentional – if exponentially larger – killings of the Great Leap Forward. Mao, in his own head, thought he was instituting policies that would lift his country out of poverty and hunger forever. Hitler was intentionally killing unarmed men, women, and children as a matter of policy. This is a usually silent, implicit moral distinction we make.

An underground gun factory in the Philippines

If we apply the same logic to the gun control debate, it forces us to ask: which is worse, accidental gun deaths or planned violent crime? To even more clearly separate this, let’s use two categories: “white” and “black” market gun deaths. “White market” guns being those bought legally with proper registration. The assumption – which might be wrong – is that few people go to a store to buy a gun that they plan to use in a murder, mostly because of the background checks and registration involved. The kind of people who plan on being involved in gun violence are almost always people already living criminal lives and buy their weapons on the black market.

Similar to the Mao vs Hitler comparison, I think we can draw a moral distinction then between the people who plan to be involved in gun violence and those who more-or-less accidentally become involved in gun violence (either through an accidental discharge or a “crime of passion”). I think it’s precisely these people that normal people fear when they talk about unsafe cities or neighborhoods. It’s also this level of violence that spawns massive increases in legal gun sales, which in turns feeds the black market with surplus. If Manila or Baltimore’s gun violence was overwhelmingly lovers shooting cheating spouses, neither would be considered a “dangerous city” and average people would have little reason to want to own a gun.

My second issue with using “reducing gun fatalities” as the goal comes from what I recently called the Singerian Approach. Where does implicit logic take us if we run with it to the margins? We live in a dangerous world in our daily lives. I’ve read that slipping in the bathtub is the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Car wrecks and ladders beat guns by a long mile in accidental fatalities. Banning guns, were it even to work, would reduce only a fraction as many deaths as banning cars and forcing people to use public transportation.

Even more morally challenging is that almost all of us are leaving lethal invisible footprints in our wake just by living our daily lives. A coal-fueled power station can leave a footprint of 278 deaths per terrawatt hour, meaning that the power station on Lamma Island has one death connected to it for every 57 minutes of peak use. It’s too disconnected to even seem real. Assuming the power plant runs at full capacity and is using cheap Chinese coal, that’s 9,211 deaths per year, or one Dachau every three years. All for our laptops, air conditioners, and TVs to be fed a never-ending stream of cheap joules. It’s far more obvious that guns kill people even if it’s statistically less important. Focusing on gun deaths seems to limit us to the optics of sensational death more than more mundane realities of everyday mortality.

The message that I’m driving at is that while we may value lives tremendously in our rhetoric, we value them significantly less so in practice. We’re actually pretty comfortable with the 1.2 million road deaths each year. It just doesn’t rile us up as much as other issues. Morally, we’re not as bothered as much as we should be because there’s no Hitler-like figure ordering henchmen to collapse coal mines, implant lung cancer, inject asthma, and drive cars into pedestrians.  There’s a much more complex causal chain linking our own consumer demand with private-side supply issues. It’s not just evil mine bosses, it’s also billions of evil consumers who demand cheap coal. Like you and I.

My “Singerian Approach” is to say that if we want to get into the messy business of prioritizing the reduction of unplanned deaths, one needs to find a way of arguing that the unplanned “white market” gun deaths are morally more important than the unplanned deaths caused by the Lamma Power Station, driving accidents, and so many other issues that take so many more lives but don’t pull our emotional strings. Why put time and money into one issue and not the other? It’s not an impossible task to create this sort of internally consistent moral chart, but I think it’s quite difficult and something most people don’t even want to think about.

The fourth reason is that focusing on a single variable is intellectually shallow and, as I’ll spell out in more detail later, can lead to multiple unintended consequences. We find the same issues with assumptions like higher income meaning a reduction in the poverty or using standardized testing to measure the performance of schools, teachers and students. In my own study on rural non-formal education, the only variable that matters is yield. Not farmer livelihoods, environmental impact, or evaluating input costs versus profits. This single variable is used to measure something altogether more difficult and complex. Poverty isn’t just about assets and the problem of guns goes far beyond the number of people they kill.

My own take is that government policy should be focused primarily on reducing public risks, not private risks. In other words, the government should be more concerned about people being robbed at ATMs than preventing crazy ex-lovers from doing something too crazy. Having a gun in your household dramatically increases the chance of gun related violence in your household. It’s a risk, like driving your kid to school on a motorcycle, that we should allow people to make even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves and would chastise friends or family who do.

As such, I feel the Lamma Power Station deaths are worse than “white market” gun deaths because of how preventable and public the threat it is. Switching to almost any other fuel source would cut those numbers dramatically. The only thing missing is political will to spend the money. The government has enough money to built a bridge to Macau and Zhuhai, but not enough to dramatically reduce lung disease and air quality. This stands in contrast to the private, household-level threat “white market” gun violence poses. Because I don’t spend time with people who own guns, I stand almost no chance of being affected by “white market” gun violence. Yet I have no choice but to breathe toxic air and use “blood” coal.

For me, then, the public policy goal towards gun violence should be a reduction in the threat of planned gun violence. “Threat” is an important word here because the people that make up systems act on expectations. In Hong Kong, I’d feel pretty comfortable running from someone demanding that I hand over my wallet. In the America or the Philippines, where lethal street crime is a real threat, I’d likely ask if there’s anything else I could help them with. The background threat of violence can drive entire countries, cities, and neighborhoods into stagnation and decline while the assumption of non-violence let’s polities’ move forward in positive ways. I think one of the most important variables people forget when analyzing China’s amazing growth is how safe China is. My wife felt safe walking through what was essentially a slum in 3am, but she wouldn’t feel safe after dark walking through her rural Philippine hometown.

Part the reason for this is that research is beginning to show that that violence in communities is much more like a disease than we ever imagined. People exposed to violence are more likely to commit violence. It goes beyond “black market” gun violence. Upticks in violence will, overall, drive up demand for legal guns. Thus, I think one can substantially reduce gun ownership and use by removing the perceived threat of planned violent crime.

This is very clear when we look at the extreme ends of violence. Think of the proliferation of automatic weapons in a city like Baghdad. I’ve read multiple accounts that say almost every family there has an AK-47. Families own these guns because of how rampant kidnapping and assassinations are. Were that threat – both real and perceived – to significantly diminish, I’m fairly confident that Iraqi mothers would be demanding that their husbands get something so clearly dangerous to their families out of their houses.

To whit, the larger moral problem is planned criminal violence. Reducing planned criminal violence ‘works’ with a secondary goal of reducing overall gun fatalities. If normal, non-violent people feel safe they’ll be far less likely to want to own a gun. Setting the goal as reducing gun deaths in aggregate, without context to the type of violence, is to confuse the Hitler’s for the Mao’s. Both are ‘bad’, but one (arguably) has a stronger moral imperative to stop than the other.


  1. Ryan said:

    Great post Trey.

    July 23, 2012
    • Trey said:

      thanks, there’s also a Part II

      July 23, 2012

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