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.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Could guns be made safer?

Let me state up front that I believe in the constitutional right of Americans to own firearms. It's been our tradition for centuries, and the Supreme Court has affirmed the right. The Supreme Court also said in the same ruling that regulations and restrictions were allowed. Presumably, a ban on private citizens owning rocket launchers and fully automatic machine guns are acceptable. Congress also has the power to set manufacturing standards on pretty much any product sold across state line. So, if they wanted to mandate limits on the size of ammo magazines, I can't think of any legal impediment to this, only political ones. A sizable number of Americans don't feel safe unless they can fire 30 bullets without reloading, and they elect politicians who feel the same way, and, for the foreseeable future, they are going to hold the majority in the house and at least a filibuster sized plurality in the senate. This isn't purely a Republican/Democrat split, either. There are plenty of Democratic senators and congressmen with A ratings from the NRA.

This isn't a politically correct thing to say so soon after the Newtown shooting, but, statistically, guns really aren't all that dangerous. There are something like 300 million guns in the US, and about 20,000 gun deaths a year from these. We have a similar number of cars, and they contribute to over 30,000 deaths per year. Of course, the vast majority of these automobile deaths are accidental. But, a fair number of the gun deaths are accidental as well. I haven't found precise numbers I trust while googling this morning, but I feel safe to say that the number of children killed each year in accidents playing with their families guns far exceeds the number of children each year murdered in mass shootings, probably by a wide margin.

Restrictions on the sale of guns are partially negated by the fact that guns are a popular target of theft. According to the BATF, over 25,000 guns are reported stolen each year. Again I don't have statistics, but my gut instinct is that stolen guns are probably used for criminal purposes far more often than legally purchased guns. If you're willing to steal a gun, you probably don't have many qualms about robbing a convenience store.

But, automobiles are also attractive targets of theft, and we take precautions to reduce the numbers of thefts, such as putting locks on the doors and on the ignition. To reduce the number of accidental deaths, we require seat belts and airbags and such safety niceties as headlights and windshield wipers and brakes. Most states also require annual inspections to make sure the safety systems are in good working order.

Couldn't manufacturers be required to implement similar safety standards for new guns? For instance, my wife's car has a wireless ignition key. She just sits in the car and presses a button to turn it on. Couldn't guns be built with a wireless safety? The legal owner of the gun could have a small radio key that he wears on a key chain or embedded in a watch. When he holds the gun, the safety can be switched off. If anyone else picks up the gun without the radio key, the safety can't be unlocked. This means that toddlers can't find the gun in their daddy's nightstand and accidentally shoot someone thinking it's a toy. If the gun is stolen, it's just a useless lump of metal. But, if you have a friend in town who wants to borrow a gun to go hunting, no problem. You just loan them the radio key.

Obviously, this does nothing to make the 300 million guns already in circulation safer. And, with so many guns, there will be a black market that persists for decades. But, changes made today could make the average gun safer fifty years from now. The cost of guns would rise a trivial amount, and firearm owners would be slightly inconvenienced by having to purchase a new battery for their key every couple of years. But, the trade off of knowing that your gun is less likely to be stolen, or accidentally discharged by someone when you aren't home, seems like a bonus for legal gun owners. And, unlike trigger locks, which gun owners oppose since it would slow them down if they needed to grab their gun to protect against a home invader, if you have the key built into a watch, the second you pick up the gun it's ready to go.

To respond to a few objections I anticipate, yes, I'm sure criminals could hack the lock system. But, why bother, when they could just find one of the older guns without the radio locks? If your gun had the lock, they probably wouldn't take the time to steal it. No, I don't think this would do much to deter mass shootings. Most take place with legally purchased guns. But, again, accidental deaths are a statistically more significant problem than mass shootings. And, yes, I know that most accidents are ones the legal owners inflict on themselves. But, just because all the safety systems on cars don't stop  people from driving off cliffs is no reason to repeal the requirements that we all wear seat belts. The goal here is to mitigate, not eliminate.

So, what am I missing? Why wouldn't this one small change help, over the long term, make guns less likely to hurt someone accidentally or be used for a crime after being stolen?


Rick Monday said...

2/3rds of gun deaths in America are suicide. That still leaves over 10k deaths by gun. Do politicians want to save or control lives? Isn't it much easier to force a populace to conform to what they (politicians) feel is necessary to maintain order when there is no way for the citizens to say no? It is my opinion that laws are enacted to punish, rather than to keep people from doing something wrong. Speeding laws are not in place to force people to slow down, but to punish those that decide they need to go a few miles faster than everyone else.

James Maxey said...

Rick, I'm finding your argument a little hard to follow. Are you saying that the government shouldn't have laws against speeding? Because most people I know do slow down after a ticket or two, or else they lose their license and are taken off the road entirely. On the whole my gut tells me we are much safer with them than without them, though I have no comparable country with a comparable number of miles traveled that has no speed limits, so I can't really make comparisions to know this for certain. Still, the proposals I'm making are more akin to equipment regulations. Most states require your car to have headlights, taillights, signals, seat belts, mufflers and catalytic converters, and functioning brakes. In my libertarian fantasies, I'd like to believe that everyone would maintain these devices due to their obvious utility even in the absense of laws, but know from personal observation that there are plenty of people who don't share the same level of concern for the safety of themselves or of others as I do.

Again, I don't want to ban cars. I don't want to ban guns. I think you should be allowed to have a gun in your home for self defense. But, let's be serious: the presence of a gun in your house is of zero use in defending yourself against a tyranical government. The Branch Davidians were armed to the teeth and fought off the initial BATF agents who came to kick in their doors, but the government had tanks and tear gas and superior numbers. You might "win" a battle, but in the larger war you'd be screwed. Let's imagine we are so libertarian you're allowed to own a rocket launcher and a whole box of hand grenades. Swell. The government has predator drones that lets some guy with a joy stick 3000 miles away erase your house from the map. Tyrants aren't equiped with muskets any more.

The real weapons against modern tyranny from within are information, the ballot, and the constitution. So, I'm actually rather supportive of stuff like the NRA's get out the vote drives, and want any gun legislation to respect the constitutional right to bear arms. But, that amendment within the text says that the militia, in this case the gun owning citizen, should be "well regulated." Setting safety standards for gun manufacturing and gun ownership isn't anticonstitutional. Nothing I'm proposing prevents a homeowner from protecting his property from a burgler during the night. But if your goal is to be so well armed the government is going to be too frightened to come to your house to enforce the law... well, good luck with that.

Rick Monday said...

James, my argument is that politicians and bureaucrats put laws and regulations in place to control the people. They are not enacted to keep us safer. Laws do not protect anyone from anything if someone decides to violate the law. I try not to speed down the road only because I don't want to pay a fine. The government is controlling my behavior through the threat of punishment.

I am not proposing anarchy. We do need laws to control behavior. But, did you ever think you would live in a country where a mayor decided you didn't need to drink a Big Gulp, and now you can't?

Information, the ballot, and the Constitution. We do not have a great way for most people to get information to the the people. The media does not keep the politicians "honest" any longer. I want the truth. I don't want the company's version of the truth. I don't want softballs thrown to a politician because the reporter likes him/her, and doesn't want the pol to look bad.

People go to the polls to vote for a party. They go to the polls to vote for a person that didn't take a drink of water in the middle of a speech. They vote for a person that replaced a senator that died in office, not because she is good, but because they feel sorry for her because she is replacing a dead husband. They vote for a person that made them laugh on TV, talking to himself in front of a mirror. They vote because they feel obligated to the organization that picked them up at home to take them to their local polling place. They vote for the person that had the most money to blanket the airwaves with ads.

The Constitution is abused every day. It is interpreted by judges that are not perfect in their judgement. It is bent and mangled by politicians that barely know it exists. It is said to be too old to be able to keep up with modern times. It is also one of the greatest documents ever written.

James, I have been around the world, in many countries. I love America. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but, if the laws we have in place are not doing the job, are more laws the answer?

James Maxey said...

Rick, sorry I didn't respond earlier. For some reason, I didn't get a notice about a new comment.

It's an interesting question you ask at the end. As it happens, last week I finally read "the Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. It's an interesting look at the social conditions of a century ago, and some of the abuses that took place under the sanction of law. There were some laws in place to protect workers, like limits on youthfulness, but these laws were subverted by powerful trusts who paid off the legal and political institutions.

A century later, many of the worst horrors shown in the novel have been mitigated. The laws we had then didn't work... but a century of new laws were pasted onto those early laws, constantly reforming and tweaking, and for the most part the average worker now labors in a paradise undreamed of a century ago.

America was also once a much more violent place than it is today. Today's mass shootings get a lot of press, but if you look at any kind of hard statistics, the rate of violent crime has been declining for decades. There are a lot of potential reasons, but it's difficult to look at the trends and conclude that the laws aren't working. Tougher enforcement and more aggressive sentencing seem to have produced a safer world.

So, I disagree with the premise that the laws we have aren't doing their job. And, I disagree that, to the extent that these laws fail, it's a reason not to attempt to refine and reform the laws.

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