I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, January 10, 2011

A few thoughts on politics and guns

The shooting of Gabriel Giffords has caused me to think about some of my basic assumptions. As a libertarian, I'm relatively pro-gun. I think the Supreme Court has things about right. The second ammendment does plainly guarantee that any citizen should have the right to own a gun, but doesn't prohibit reasonable laws regulating these arms. I firmly believe that 99% of gun owners are honest folks who would never dream of using a gun for aggressive violence.

But, having the right to own a gun for hunting, target practice, or self-defense is one thing. Owning a gun that will let you fire off thirty rounds into a crowd in a minute or so is a completely different matter.

Life isn't a Hollywood action movie. I can't think of many plausible situations where a person is likely to need a gun that fires off more than 5 or 6 rounds in order to defend themselves. I know it will never happen since the NRA opposes any restrictions on guns, but couldn't we slow the pace of these spree shootings that seem to happen almost yearly in the US simply by limiting the magazine sizes of guns? Six-shooters were good enough for cowboys. Let's make that the limit. Then, a spree killer has to stop and reload (or carry multiple guns, but if you're carrying five guns into a supermarket, maybe someone will notice before you get four feet away from the congresswoman).

Can anyone give me a sane argument why this would be an intolerable limit on our civil liberties?

Guns don't kill people. People kill people. And some people are bat-shit crazy and there's really no good way of filtering them out. When they do finally get their hands on a gun, let's make them reload.

Thought two: Hateful rhetoric and a culture of violence.

Blaming Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh for this shooting or for the rise of "hate speech" is more about hating Palin and Limbaugh than it is based on any sort of evidence or reason. Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that this violence was inevitable due to the harsh rhetoric of modern politics, but it makes me wonder if he's actually paying attention to history and the news.

The reality is, if you're under 25, you haven't seen a serious assassination attempt on a president, congressman, senator, or supreme court justice. You could argue that the president has better security these days, but congressmen aren't surrounded by squadrons of guards. US senators freely go jogging on the streets of DC without armed escorts. Supreme Court Justices don't wear bulletproof vests when they go grocery shopping. For all the talk of political violence, anyone half way paying attention has to see that we live in very peaceful times. As a people, we don't solve our political disagreements by gunning each other down in the streets.

Is political violence today worse than it was in the 60's and 70's? For all the talk that the Tea Party members are racist bastards driven to insanity by a black president, does no one remember that it was little more than 50 years ago when KKK members routinely lynched blacks and murdered civil rights advocates?

Even back in the 90s, it seemed like there was a spate of homegrown terrorists bombing abortion clinics and targeting federal buildings and mailing bombs to college campuses.

Maybe the increased security after 9-11 is the reason, or maybe we just started getting our violent rages out by playing video games, but it seems to me that we've had a remarkably civil and non-violent political discourse in our country for the last thirty years or so. I don't even think the shooting last weekend counts as political violence because the guy was obviously wacko. He didn't need Glenn Beck telling him to shoot people; he had that creepy little skull on that shrine in his back yard whispering what to do.

So, I'd like to say to the right wingers and the left wingers out there reading this: Thanks. Thanks for being decent folks and limiting your political action to name calling and shouting. I'm grateful that you haven't turned us into a place where we settle our differences with rifles instead of ballots. You're alright, my fellow Americans.

Unless you think that you need more than six bullets in your gun to defend yourself from a burgler. In which case you're just a jerk.


Sky said...

Hi James,

Thoughtful post, and I appreciate your concern and sincerity.

Having formerly been in law enforcement, let me say that I used to carry a 9mm handgun with three 13-round magazines, (one magazine in the weapon itself with one round in the chamber). Why carry 39 rounds? The experiences of those officers and others who came before me.

A gunfight is not like being on the range where you are calm and can take your time. If someone shoots at you, calm goes out the window--you are now fighting to see your wife and children again.

In some instances, you may draw your weapon and put a round or two into the shooter--if you're good and lucky, and haven't already been shot, (and therefore partially incapacitated), and are fortunate enough that there is only one shooter and not a whole gang.

If there is a whole gang, that 39 rounds might not be enough.

Your first few rounds may be purely to upset the shooter(s) long enough to let you take cover. You may spray and pray as you run in hopes of doing some damage, but you can't even try to aim precisely, (even so, you do not fire indiscriminately, keeping in mind innocent bystanders).

Then, from cover, you may fire a round or two to keep their heads down so you can have a peek at their positions.

You see one, take aim and fire. You hit him, but you didn't stop him--he can still shoot at you. (In prison X-rays, doctors found that Bonnie and Clyde's driver had accumulated over 18 rounds over the years that where still in his body.)

At this moment, if you have a standard 7-round .45 Colt, you're empty: In fact, you may have run out even before you reached cover. I hope you have another magazine. If not, harsh language is all you have left.

If you are like most citizens who carry a pistol for protection, you don't carry extra magazines, so you only have a few seconds left in your life before your assailant comes around the corner at you.

You may be on the street, you may be in your home. Anyone who has not had a shot fired at them in anger really has no idea what goes on in the following minutes, and is not qualified to make rules which ultimately determine who lives and who dies.

I could go on for a whole chapter here, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Limiting the size of magazines is a very bad idea for legitimate personal safety. Especially considering that a practiced shooter can slap a fresh magazine in almost literally faster than you can blink.

The problem is with evil people and crazy people. Not tools.

Loren Eaton said...

Heck, I even try not to shout.

James Maxey said...

"You may spray and pray as you run in hopes of doing some damage, but you can't even try to aim precisely..."

Sky, despite the second half of your sentence saying you wouldn't do this "indiscriminately," the fact you sit around day dreaming about scenarios where you could squeeze off 39 rounds without aiming as you dodge and duck the phantom gangs that assail you is a pretty good argument for why we shouldn't allow civilians to have these large ammo clips.

In the real life Arizona case, the shooter fired until his clip ran dry, he started to reload, and he was taken down by two unarmed men and a little old lady. It would have been senseless and tragic if this had occured after 6 shots as well as after 31, but some much smaller fraction of people would have been wounded or dead.

After these spree killings, NRA drones always say the answer is more guns, more guns, more guns. The Colombine killers wouldn't have killed as many people if the teachers had been armed! The Va Tech shooter wouldn't have killed as many people if the students had been armed! Criminals wouldn't commit gun crimes if they think their victims are going to have guns! Well, Arizona is right up at the top of states with heavily armed civilian populations. That did nothing to stop this tragedy.

It may be, Sky, that you're not an NRA cult zombie. Impossible to say, since your profile is hidden. So, assuming you are a rational man, can you tell me what restrictions on guns you would support? Are there any weapons a civilian shouldn't be allowed to own in the name of self defense?

Eric James Stone said...

James, you're thinking like a liberal, not a libertarian: you see a tragedy and ask, what government regulations should we pass as a result of this tragedy? (Although, to be sure, you're thinking like a reasonable liberal, because your proposed government regulation might have affected the outcome of this tragedy. Unreasonable liberals just use the tragedy as an excuse to enact their pet policy objectives.)

Over the past decade, I count 54 victims of mass murder killings in the U.S.

About 140 children under five die each year by drowning in residential swimming pools. You could save a lot more lives by banning residential swimming pools than by banning gun magazines that hold over six rounds. (Does anyone really NEED a residential swimming pool?)

Basing your regulations of other people on what you, individually, think other people do or do not legitimately need is not a very libertarian attitude. Millions of law-abiding gun owners have purchased magazines with a capacity larger than six because they felt such magazines would best serve whatever purpose they had in mind.

James Maxey said...

Eric, thinking like a liberal is no dishonor when liberals have good ideas. Ralph Nadar is as liberal as a person can get, and I find 99% of this ideas kind of nutty. But, I'd gladly shake his hand for starting Consumer Reports. And, his push for government intervention in forcing automakers to produce safer cars and state to implement safer driving laws is something I can get behind. Are my liberties so greatly infringed by seatbelts and airbags? I am modestly less free because by law I must pay a government approved inspector to examine my car yearly and certify that my brakes and muffler and headlights work. These things are all the results of nanny-state thinking, the assumption that we can't be trusted to take care of this stuff ourselves. But, guess what? We can't! So, while a radical libertarian might rail against this assault on their freedom to drive around with bald tires and no rearview mirrors, saying that this is the first step on the slippery slope toward communism, I'm again willing to say, "Hey! Nadar! Good idea!"

As for the swimming pool argument, it doesn't hold water. The raw number of deaths don't tell you how risky a behavior is until you divide it into the number of hours people spend engaging in the activity. Thus, the number of swimming pool deaths has to be divided into the number of hours that people spend hanging around swimming pools. I have no idea what this second number is, but imagine it is probably billions of hours per year, meaning the death rate from a child swimming in a swimming pool is very low. (As is the incidents of childen being disemboweled by the old style swimming pool drains; yet, I don't oppose regulations to force new pools to have safer drains.)

The time people spend on spree killing is pretty small. Probably less than an hour in the last decade, but for the sake of argument we'll round up and say an hour. So, each hour of spree killing has a death rate of 54 per hour by your statistics, mostly of people who didn't voluntarily agree to engage in the activity. If swimming or driving or lion taming had a similar death rate among innocent bystanders, we'd regulate the hell out of it.

But, again, I recognize I'm shouting into a void. There is no activist group better organized than the NRA. They have perfected the use of democracatic methods of protecting us from tyranny, and for that I tip my hat in admiration. One stand in awe at how effective they've been at defending the rights of deranged loners to kill large groups of strangers in short periods of time.

I've made a suggestion that I think would limit the potential damage of this type of spree killing. I don't believe there's any evidence my proposed regulation would greatly inconvenience or endanger anyone's life, liberty, or wallet, though I have no doubt the NRA will be quick to present reams of stories of people whose homes were invaded by 7 gangsters and the whole family was killed because the gun they used to defend themselves only had 6 bullets.

Is your position that we should do nothing to try to prevent these sorts of spree killing? That it's just too trivial a cause of harm for us to worry about? That the sane response is just to shrug, and mumble, "Shit happens?" Or do you have some non-governmental approach to the problem that you think would be a superior solution?

Eric James Stone said...

James, you're using the wrong denominator for your math. It's not the amount of time spent by people engaged in spree killing -- that would be the equivalent of using the amount of time people spent drowning in my swimming pool example. Instead, you need to use the amount of time people are using magazines with more than six bullets in them.

I don't have time right now to address any of your other points.

James Maxey said...

Eric, I'm specifically talking about spree killing which is why I accept the number of 54 deaths in a decade. But, if you want to discuss just general gun usage, then we need to use the general gun death stats. A little googling shows the CDC reporting gun about 30,000 gun deaths a year, though it was lower back at the beginning of the decade. Let's call it 25,000 deaths a year to be fair. So, 250,000 deaths a decade. Alas, I can't discern from this number how many were caused by large clips versus smaller clips. Since a big chunk of the deaths are suicides, I suppose clip size doesn't matter for about half.

Total deaths by drowning per year are about 4000, but this includes open water, not just swimming pools.

Note that I'm not talking about banning guns. If you want to buy a gun to kill yourself, injure deer, or prepare for the zombie apocalypse, more power to you. I just want to limit the potential damage from spree killings by engineering a pause in the mayhem.

I still look forward to hearing your suggestion for preventing the damage that flows out of these events.

Mr. Cavin said...

But most states do have a legal limit placed on magazine capacity in civilian-owned weapons. In handguns it's usually something like ten. My mother's 9mm Sig, for example, is made to hold twelve or so bullets in the handle, so she has to buy lower capacity magazines to comply with the law. I'd have said that federal incentives for state enforcement were provided as part of the Brady bill, but I might be making that up.

The big problem with creating new gun laws is that, frequently, mass murderers and spree killers are already breaking existing rules meant to control both their use of, and their ability to procure, firearms to begin with. It's a completely tired argument, I know, but these are criminals we're talking about--frequently disturbed and suicidal criminals--not people who are going to be effected by new rules. It's why the NRA claims that only the law-abiding citizens ever get restricted when legislation tightens gun controls.

James Maxey said...

Mr. Cavin, I agree that criminals with rational minds are unlikely to be slowed by gun laws. Black markets will exist for these large capacity clips that are now legally manufactured. (They were illegal to manufacture from 93-2003, when the Brady bill expired.) If you're in a gang deriving income from the drug industry, you will probably be able to arm yourself to the teeth.

But spree killers aren't normally coming from a criminal culture. They are typically from rather boring middle class lives where they are unlikely to have access to the black market for illegal weapons.

Loughner likely went out and purchased the biggest clip available to him, which, in Arizona, was 31. If it had been 13, he'd have used this. If it had been 6, he'd have used this. The crime wouldn't have been stopped, but there would have been a pause after 6 rounds instead of 31.

Harsh penalties aren't likely to influence spree killers. They aren't likely to be discouraged by the death penalty; they likely go into these scenarios with fantasies of heroically being gunned down.

We can't outlaw craziness, but we can make the tools available to them less dangerous.

And, I will ask the same question of you, Mr. Cavin, that I asked Eric. Do you feel like spree killing is so statistically trivial a crime that we should make no attempt to reduce it? Or do you think that there is some better approach to tackling the problem that I'm overlooking?

James Maxey said...

Also, Eric, the number 54 seemed low to me, given that the VA tech shooter killed 31. Here's a list I found of mass shootings in the last decade. Obviously, there are some on the list that my proposed law would have had no effect on, like the DC sniper or the Wisconson hunter. Even excluding these, I'm still arriving at 100+ killed.

-- In October 2002, a series of sniper-style shootings occurred in Washington DC, leaving 10 dead.

-- In August 2003 in Chicago, a laid-off worker shot and killed six of his former workmates.

-- In November 2004 in Birchwood, Wisconsin, a hunter killed six other hunters and wounded two others after an argument with them.

-- In March 2005, a man opened fire at a church service in Brookfield, Wisconsin, killing seven people.

-- In October 2006, a truck driver killed five schoolgirls and seriously wounded six others in a school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania before taking his own life.

-- In April 2007, a student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 15 others at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, before shooting himself, making it the deadliest mass shooting in the United States after 2000.

-- In December 2007, a 20-year-old man killed nine people and injured five others in a shopping center in Omaha, Nebraska.

-- In December 2007, a woman and her boyfriend shot dead six members of her family on Christmas Eve in Carnation, Washington.

-- In February 2008, a shooter who is still at large tied up and shot six women at a suburban clothing store in Chicago, leaving five of them dead and the remaining one injured.

-- In February 2008, a man opened fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, killing five students and wounding 16 others before laying down his weapon and surrendering.

-- In September 2008, a mentally ill man who was released from jail one month earlier shot eight people in Alger, Washington, leaving six of them dead and the rest two wounded.

-- In December 2008, a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit opened fire at a family Christmas party in Covina, California, then set fire on the house and killed himself. Police later found nine people dead in the debris of the house.

-- In March 2009, a 28-year-old laid-off worker opened fire while driving a car through several towns in Alabama, killing 10 people.

-- In March 2009, a heavily-armed gunman shot dead eight people, many of them elderly and sick people, in a private-owned nursing home in North Carolina.

-- In March 2009, six people were shot dead in a high-grade apartment building in Santa Clara, California.

-- In April 2009, a man shot dead 13 people at a civic center in Binghamton, New York.

-- In November 2009, U.S. army psychologist Major Nidal Hasan opened fire at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, leaving 13 dead and 42 others wounded.

-- In January 2011, a gunman opened fire at a public gathering outside a grocery in Tuscon, Arizona, killing six people including a nine-year-old girl and wounding at least 12 others. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured with a gunshot to the head.

heresolong said...

Hey James. I just finished reading your Dragon's Age trilogy and am looking forward to more books in the future. Browsing around to find out if you already had more books, I find myself drawn into a political discussion, but that's OK too. Entertainment and education, all in one tidy packet, I guess.

I wanted to comment on your idea that a magazine limit of 6 rounds would be reasonable. A couple observations.

1) If six is reasonable, why is 1 also not reasonable. There are many who would restrict firearms to single shot only using the same argument you made. Six seems somewhat arbitrary and the next time someone goes on a shooting rampage, there will almost surely be calls to lower the "unnecessary" and dangerous limit down from 6, which no one really needs.

2) You dismissed, in a fairly cavalier manner, the arguments of those who suggested that these shootings might have been less severe or not happened if law abiding citizens were allowed to carry on school campuses. However, you fail to mention one important point. The reason schools are "gun free zones" is because it was thought to be a reasonable restriction that would serve to prevent mass shootings. Your list clearly shows that it hasn't worked. In fact, criminals appear to have chosen these places because of a lack of opposition. When was the last time you read a news story of a mass shooting at a gun show, for example?

3) Statistics are a muddy area, as the examples proposed suggest. You could also argue that out of millions of gun owners in the United States, only ten of them have gone on rampages over the past ten years, based on your list (which is somewhat questionable anyway since one of them was actually an Islamist terrorist attack). Calculating the misuse of firearms in mass shootings using that percentage indicates that there isn't a huge problem.

I think most gun owners would agree that we should do more to prevent tragedies like the Tucson shootings but where we apparently disagree is in the methods. You would restrict millions of people who will never go on a shooting rampage to stop the few who do. I would suggest that had law enforcement done a better job of actually responding to the issues surrounding this young man, he would not have been free to go on his rampage. The same could be said of Major Hassan, who was reported on numerous occasions for espousing radical Islamist views, yet allowed to remain in a position of authority within the military.

Anyway, enjoying your blog, looking forward to more of your posts and books as they come available.


James Maxey said...


I see that by now you've found my writing blog, dragonprophet.blogspot.com. I try to keep the politics away from there for people who might not enjoy my deranged rantings... er, I mean my insightful opinions.

To address your points:

1: At the time the first ammendment was crafted, the typical gun could only fire one shot. Somehow, we survived as a nation. None the less, I'm fully in favor of people being able to carry guns for self defense, and can see how a single shot might not be enough in many plausible situations. Six is, I admit, an arbitrary number. If you want to make a case for what you think the upper number of bullets a civilian should be able to fire off in under a minute before reloading, let me know. I'm willing to settle for a reasonable compromise. 31 seems to me to enter a realm where the danger the technology imposes outweighs the benefits derived from it.

2. My employer doesn't allow me to carry a gun at my workplace. Hell, according to the company handbook, I could be dismissed for having a gun in my car in the parking lot of my office. Somehow, I muddle through, and am not dead yet. Restrictions keeping guns off school grounds seem reasonable to me because the number one form of gun violence in the US is suicide and the second is crimes of passion; someone gets into a hotheaded argument and boom, a gun goes off. Teenagers have a higher than average incident of both suicide and hotheaded arguments. I say, let them kill themselves and their friends at home. My tax dollars pay for schools, dang it, and I'd rather the walls not get shot up.

As for the fantasy that if more people were armed, we'd have less gun violence, I will point out that the third spree killing on the list was a hunter who flipped out and shot a bunch of other hunters, who, I presume, were armed. And was no one on the army base where Hassan went on his shooting spree armed? (Although, admittedly, my clip size limit wouldn't have affected his case since it wouldn't apply to military weapons.) I will also note that Arizona has one of the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the US. It was legal for just about everyone in that parking lot to be packing heat. It didn't change Loughner's mind. He was beyond any sort of rational calculation. Thus, my desire to introduce an engineered pause into future rampages.

3: You know, I've used the "not that big of a deal, let's keep it in perspective" argument myself in the past. In fact, this was exactly my response after Columbine and Virginia Tech. Yeah, it's a shame these things happen, but it's rare, and just the price we pay for the trade off of being able to defend ourself at a moment's notice if the Brits come back.

What was it about this one that changed my mind? I don't know. But just how many times can we shrug these things off and say, "Eh, there's nothing we could do with our gun laws to change these things." If roughly one killing spree a year isn't enough to worry about, how many would it take?

Must the right to bear arms permit us to own any weapon that can be manufactured? If civilians are in such danger they need to carry clips with 31 rounds, why not allow them to carry hand grenades? Rocket launchers? Our own armed remotely piloted drones we can use to hunt elk from the comfort of our living rooms?

Anyway, Calvin, thanks for coming by and making your case. These are good points all, stuff I mostly agreed with as little as a month ago. And, in every practical sense, you win the argument, because no law limiting clip sizes will be passed.

Eric James Stone said...

James, my bad on the mass killing number -- I was working off this Wikipedia list of mass murderers, and did not notice the caveat that school and workplace killings had their own, separate lists:

Here's someone who disagrees with your premise that high-capacity magazines are more useful for spree killers than for defense: