If you follow gun stuff, you’ve been hearing a lot about universal background checks. So let’s get the lay of the land. This article is especially for people who are roughly aware of the issue but don’t know the details of it, or the details of why it’s a debate at all.
And yeah, why is it a debate? The question “Would you favor or oppose background checks on all potential gun buyers?” really does poll at 90% support. That’s surprising. You can’t get 90% of people to agree on a flavor of ice cream, let alone a gun law.
What’s going on here? There are three key questions to answer:
This essay has been in my head for a long time. But after hearing about the mass shooting yesterday in Texas and then waking up to news of another just over 12 hours later in Ohio — all a week after a similar attack in California — today is a sadly apt day to write it down.
The tricky part is that discussions about this stuff almost always fail. Their stable equilibrium is usually one of a handful of failure modes that we all know (and which are mostly various shapes of “look, it’s the outgroup — get ’em!”).
I wrote last year about the culture war incentive structure around this, why the two sides talk past each other, and why they’re at an impasse without even realizing it.
A common pitfall here is to jump right to solutions without first agreeing on the problem. So, for example, the gun rights crowd will talk about:
One standard explanation for how gun laws come about goes something like this:
This view does have some explanatory power if you’re trying to model gun control groups’ behavior. It explains the 1989 assault weapons ban, and various state-level bans. Where it starts to falter is as these bans get further and further from targeting functional differences.
Many culture wars play out as a disagreement over where things are headed. Gay rights will fade into history vs. gay rights are the future. Governments of the future will enforce separation of the races vs. governments of the future will treat all people equally. Women should stay in their place vs. women will have no one “place” they have to stay. Etc.
Guns aren’t like that.
The problem with “rights based” arguments, quite honestly, is they go nowhere, because of what government is. Government, at its root, is an exchange of some amount of liberty for some amount of security. It’s a grand bargain. Some governments take more of your liberty, and grant you more security in exchange. Some take more and grant you less security. Some leave you more liberty and grant you less security. Some leave you with a lot of both. And every argument about every government policy can, at its root, be boiled down to an exchange of some amount of liberty for some amount of security. That’s what a law is.
When you drive home from the airport, you’re doing something statistically insane. Everyone knows this. You’re trading a plane, a vehicle with 0.07 fatalities per billion passenger-miles, for a car, a vehicle with 7.3 fatalities per billion passenger-miles. Pound for pound, the plane is 100 times less deadly. But somehow that doesn’t help when you’re flying through a thunderstorm at 35,000 feet.
The difference in a car is that you’re in control. Half of the people killed in automobiles weren’t wearing a seatbelt. Alcohol was involved in a third of highway deaths. Men die at three times the rate that women do. People between ages 18 and 29 are at a 50-90% higher risk of death than the baseline. (All stats from the link above.) Accidents happen, but if you wear your seatbelt and drive safely, they’ll happen a lot less to you.
On a plane, the only thing you control is the angle of your seat. If you’re going down, just put your hands together and praise Sully.
In a ruling on Friday in Duncan v. Becerra, a federal judge struck down California’s ban on standard-capacity magazines. Now what?
We’ll cover three things: how to buy magazines in California right now, what’s next for the court case, and a detailed breakdown of the judge’s opinion.
Carlos DeLuna died on December 7, 1989. Last meal: declined to eat. Last words: “I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and don’t give up.” He’d been convicted of killing Wanda Lopez in a gas station robbery. An eyewitness flagged DeLuna in a photo lineup at the Corpus Christi Police Department.
Lineups were standard at the time. Still are, some places. Sometimes they’re in person, sometimes with a book of mugshots. Works the same either way. Eyewitness looks at the lineup. “Which of these faces is the one you saw at the scene of the crime?” Eyewitness picks the one. We’ve got the guy.
Well, we’ve got a guy. A guy is often the guy. That guy. But sometimes it’s just some guy.
In the past two years I’ve been asked for more and more recommendations about matters of self defense and personal security, especially from urban, educated professionals who aren’t necessarily comfortable with firearms and who are definitely not used to thinking about their fellow citizens as potential threats to themselves and their families. For a variety of reasons, both valid and vastly overhyped, ordinary people are increasingly concerned for their physical safety.
There’s a standard talk that I give my friends and family on this topic, and I want to share it, here, because it’s critically important that folks who are new to this topic begin in the right place — not with a list of what things they should buy or skills they should acquire, but with a big-picture sense of how they should approach this entire topic of personal security.
Given the aforementioned demographic of people who ask me about personal security, there is an analogy that they often have prior familiarity with that’s a near-perfect fit for the problem of keeping yourself safe: personal finance.
Both self-defense and finance share the peculiar quality of information asymmetry: they’re complex fields where experts and insiders know a ton that normal people simply can’t grasp without becoming experts themselves. On a practical level, that manifests itself in five important similarities that are worth pondering as you approach this topic for the first time.
For the past couple months, we’ve maintained a private spreadsheet of important active cases at the circuit court or Supreme Court level. Just realized it could be a useful community resource, because no similar snapshot seems to exist anywhere else. So it’s now public at the link below. Anyone logged into Notion can comment — let us know if there are any cases or details we’ve missed.
For the familiar points of disagreement, most people (on all sides) resort to first-order thinking and low-effort culture war agitprop. That provides short-term validation, but it doesn’t spread knowledge and it’s not persuasive to those who disagree.
To persuade and to get smarter ourselves, it’s important to focus on systems-level thinking. Here’s a list of highly shareable, high-quality answers to the issues that frequently come up around gun rights.
A Guardian study showing that murders in the US are extremely concentrated to specific areas and demographics, which suffer under rates of violence an order of magnitude higher than the median
The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin published an article on Christmas Eve, to argue that credit card companies should build models that take spending activity as input and return “probability that this customer is planning a mass shooting” as output.
An excerpt from the crux of it:
A New York Times examination of mass shootings since the Virginia Tech attack in 2007 reveals how credit cards have become a crucial part of the planning of these massacres. There have been 13 shootings that killed 10 or more people in the last decade, and in at least eight of them, the killers financed their attacks using credit cards. Some used credit to acquire firearms they could not otherwise have afforded.
Those eight shootings killed 217 people. The investigations undertaken in their aftermath uncovered a rich trove of information about the killers’ spending. There were plenty of red flags, if only someone were able to look for them, law enforcement experts say.
Sorkin is well-known for having used his NYT column in the weeks after the Parkland massacre to successfully lobby Citigroup and Bank of America to fire their business customers who sell standard-capacity magazines and other common touchstones. So people on all sides reacted predictably to his new article.