More guns; more dead humans

Josh Marshall on the evolution of the “more guns; less crime” GOP talking point that has come to dominate the “gun rights crowd.”  Of course, not only is it based on John Lott’s debunked and dubious scholarship, Marshall spins out the fundamental illogic of the claims in actual human society.  Good, good stuff:

But it goes back further still, more than a decade to a largely discredited and significantly disgraced “gun rights” economist named John Lott. Lott wrote some foundation studies that didn’t withstand serious scrutiny. He also got in trouble for creating fake online identities to praise his work. But that was beside the point, as the debate developed. This idea became gospel in the world of “gun rights” politics.

What Lott did was apply a kind of crude game theory to the gun question – call it Mutually Assured Massacre. The logic goes something like this. If most people are unarmed, the guy who’s carrying has tremendous power and can kill more or less with impunity, at least in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. No one can shoot back. But if everyone is armed or any given person might be armed, you’re going to be a lot more cautious about going for your firearm and shooting someone. Because they might be armed too. They might shoot back. Or the person next to them might be armed. If everyone is armed, everyone will be on their best behavior. Because they’re all equal in terms of lethal violence. Shootings will go down, not up.

In the abstract, where no humans actually exist, there’s actually a compelling logic to this. If I know you’re armed, I’ll be on my best behavior. You will too because you know I’m armed. Of course, in practice, almost everything is wrong with this logic. It relies on an extremely crude version of economic rational action and an even cruder form of game theory. This is particularly the case when you realize that the fraught, angry situations where people impulsively kill other people are by definition not rational. [emphases mine] This doesn’t even get into situations like school shootings where the assailant usually intends to die in the massacre. It also doesn’t get into accidents, misunderstandings. It’s completely nuts.

Marshall makes a really interesting comparison so pro-slavery rhetoric:

But the policy arguments from gun rights advocates mostly come back to John Lott: more guns in private hands means more safety. Same with open carry and a bunch of other parts of the “gun rights” agenda. It’s pervasive. It’s gospel.

I think we can only understand this development by looking back to an earlier period of American history, particularly the last two decades before the Civil War. In the first decades of American history, there were many slaves and many slaveholders. But there were very few defenders of slavery per se…

This was the spur for the so-called “positive good” theory of pro-slavery politics.

Quite simply, far from being a necessary evil or a flawed and unjust institution slaveholders’ ancestors had saddled them with, slavery was not only a good thing but the only foundation of a just society. It was right that Africans should be slaves and that whites should be their masters. Full stop. This explicit abandonment of the concept of equality led many Southern intellectuals in the 1850s to rework their entire theories of politics and government – sometimes with startling outcomes that went far beyond slavery…

In retrospect, this evolution seems inevitable. People can’t go to literal or figurative war with an ambivalent commitment. The need for a positive defense of slavery was critical.

In retrospect, I believe Lott’s work and those who built upon it played a similar role in the post-Columbine evolution of the firearms debate. (And to be clear, I’m not equating them substantively. I’m talking about the need for a ‘positive good’ version of pro-gun advocacy.)…

All available evidence suggests the obvious: more guns, more gun deaths. Lott’s whole thesis is almost comically flawed for anyone who understands the interaction of human nature and game theory. The empirical studies all seem flawed. Even apart from this, a big chunk of the population, probably the majority, simply doesn’t want to live in a high-fear, maximally armed society. But these are all the consequences of the NRA’s ‘positive good’ theory of guns. That’s where Trump got this inane idea. It’s not strange at all. We should expect it.

And, just to make clear that this is empirical fact, not just liberal rhetoric, the necessary chart:

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to More guns; more dead humans

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Notably, the large number of gun deaths does not flow from an unusually large number of assaults. U.S. assaults are simply more deadly because guns instead of other means are used.

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