My college astronomy professor used to describe his craft like this: “My job is to build predictive models.” As an astronomer, you build a model of how the universe works. Your model predicts things: the position of a planet, the existence of black holes, gravitational lensing, whatever. If reality doesn’t do what your model said it would, there’s a simple rule: your model is wrong. But if your model’s predictions keep coming true, you might be onto something.
The past few months have been extreme in a lot of ways, but there’s one that people aren’t grasping: we just had the most pivotal single change in gun ownership in US history, and nobody spotted it. Sure, people have written articles about the record-breaking uptick in gun sales, but the analysis tends to stop there. This is much bigger than that.
We’ll explain why an outdated — but completely ubiquitous — mental model of gun rights is making people miss the importance of what just happened. And then we’ll propose a new model that makes a prediction of its own: the last few months have altered the course of gun rights in the US for decades.
Let’s start with a simple catalog of observations.
The traditional counters to that case are familiar. Nobody needs 30 rounds. Nobody needs an AR-15. Just call the police. Only the police should have guns. Tyranny won’t happen here. Etc.
We won’t rehash those debates here. They’re old enough that it’s kind of boring by now, and anyway, opinions in this case aren’t as interesting as facts: the debate is over. Not in a blustery “we want to stop talking about this” sort of way, but empirically. People just went ahead and did what they wanted to — namely, taking their cause and their safety into their own hands — like the debate wasn’t even there.
There are lots of other examples, but the way to think about this is that for every historically reliable gun control talking point, there is probably now a video clip that makes it really hard to defend.
The NSSF (the gun industry’s main trade group) just released their report on gun sales in the first four months of 2020. Record-breaking spikes in guns sales actually happen relatively frequently, and that’s certainly been the case in 2020. But the unique thing this year is how many of those gun sales were to first-time owners. The NSSF estimates that 40 percent of sales were to newbies, two-thirds higher than the typical level of 24 percent. Combined with 6.5 million background checks in the first four months of the year, NSSF estimates that the January–April 2020 period created 2.6 million new gun owners in the US.
There are 209 million adults in the US. Thirty percent of them personally own a gun. So 2.6 million new gun owners means a 4.1 percent increase in the total number of gun owners. In four months, driven by COVID. That’s before the second wave of new buyers from all the May–June upheaval — which wave, judging by the images of 2-hour lines outside gun shops, could be just as big as the first one.
Jumps like this just don’t happen. We saw so many gun-curious people asking for guidance that we spun up the OSD Office Hours program for them. The media’s been writing about this new wave of owners a lot too, e.g. this piece in The Guardian about our office hours. It’s not possible to overstate it, because there’s nothing that tops it; this has never happened before.
The stereotype is that gun ownership is rural, white, and politically conservative. And there are certainly some good reasons why that stereotype exists. But it has become increasingly dodgy as a full — or even representative — picture of gun ownership. The Black Panthers are a longstanding counterpoint, and you’ve also had long-simmering sentiments like the ones Ice-T lays out below: “The right to bear arms is because that’s the last form of defense against tyranny. Not to hunt. It’s to protect yourself from the police.” But people have thrown these things around for years, and they haven’t been persuasive to people who don’t already agree.
The difference this year is that the facts on the ground are changing. As linked above, people see black and Arab business owners guarding their businesses. The #1 and #2 most popular links on /r/firearms last week were a black-panther-themed Gadsden flag and a black redditor on the value of gun rights. Killer Mike is in the news for a thoroughly researched op-ed encouraging minority gun ownership. Armed black citizen patrols are forming in neighborhoods in Minneapolis — led by a City Council member and son of the state Attorney General! — where residents don’t trust looters or police.
There’s a famous Ida B. Wells quote which people usually shorten to “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home”. But recently I’ve been seeing a lot more allusions to the full quote:
Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Fla., and Paducah, Ky., and prevented it. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.
The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.
Reason ran a somewhat aspirationally titled article last week, “The Year Gun Control Died”. It’s a more complete catalog of the sorts of observations I’ve made in this piece so far, with a little more editorializing. If you’re a gun rights person you’ll like it, and if you’re not, you probably won’t. But it reminded me of an episode from back in January, which feels like years ago. After a man entered a church in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas and killed two people, an armed parishioner shot him dead before he could do more damage.
It was a big news story because it was an abortive mass shooting, and also because the armed self-defense angle was zeitgeisty for the gun rights crowd. Michael Bloomberg, who was running for president at the time, said the following:
It may be true — I wasn’t there and don’t know the facts — that somebody in the congregation had his own gun and killed the person who murdered two other people, but it’s the job of law enforcement to have guns and to decide when to shoot. You just do not want the average citizen carrying a gun in a crowded place.
Now, Bloomberg isn’t popular with the gun rights people. He spends an eight-figure sum each year on gun control lobbying groups, further ratcheted down New York City’s already-strictest-in-the-nation gun laws as mayor, and is generally seen as hostile to the concept of gun rights — the idea of weapons-as-weapons, as opposed to a sporting- or hunting-oriented vision of gun ownership.
So when he says that he supports the Second Amendment, gun rights folks generally roll their eyes. There’s even shorthand for it: “He’s an ‘I support the Second Amendment, but…’ person.” That “but” is the community’s marker that someone’s not a real supporter.
Bloomberg bristles at that, and the pull-quote above reveals something interesting: he’s right to bristle. Because he’s faithfully articulating the historically dominant version of gun rights. You can think of it as the centralized model: where gun rights are highly valued and strongly defended, but always mediated by a central authority that decides who has those rights. Gun rights people often elide this into “he wants to take everyone’s guns”, but that’s not true at all. The centralized model has a deep, philosophically-rooted respect for the gun rights of those in the authority’s good graces. It only takes the guns of those who aren’t.
The common framework for thinking about the history of gun laws is “gun control vs. gun rights”, but almost nobody truly supports the first half of that. There’s a different framework that has a lot more explanatory power and actually captures everybody’s beliefs: the centralized model of gun rights vs. the decentralized model.
And historically, the vast majority of debate has simply been infighting on the first half of that — an argument about who gets to be the central authority, and whose gun rights they should defend.
Back in 2016, Jane Coaston wrote a summary history of US gun laws: “The (Really, Really) Racist History of Gun Control in America”. And prominent 1960s civil rights figures like Robert F. Williams (a president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP) and Charles E. Cobb (a SNCC activist) have written entire books about how the whole point of creating gun laws in the American south was to disarm black people. The first modern gun permit laws originated in that climate — states passed laws saying that you need a permit to carry (or, in some cases, own) a gun, and just go on down to the local sheriff to apply for a permit. You can guess whose permits the sheriff would approve.
In South Carolina, slaves — who were “of barbarous, wild savage natures” according to Colony Law — could not have unsupervised access to weapons and could be killed freely, provided the murder wasn’t “wanton.” In Florida, white “citizens patrols” were permitted to search the homes of free African-Americans for guns “and other offensive or improper weapons, and may lawfully seize and take away such arms, weapons, and ammunition.” The message was clear: guns — like the ballot box, marriage, and the right to free assembly — were for white Americans only.
Many resisted, and did so with the very weapons they were forbidden to own. Harriet Tubman rescued more than 300 people from slavery with a gun under her arm. Frederick Douglass wrote in 1854 that a good revolver was critical to staying free: “Every slave hunter who meets a bloody death in his infernal business is an argument in favor of the manhood of our race.”
Even after the Civil War, when slavery had ended, so-called “Black Codes” limited the rights of African-Americans in the South, banning them from owning guns (or liquor, for that matter). African-Americans lost the right to vote in many states because of poll taxes and literacy tests, and therefore the right to serve on juries (which was limited to voters).
[An excerpt with the Ida B. Wells quote from above, then…]
That conflict — between the fears of racist whites and the needs of African-Americans to defend themselves — arose again in the late 1960s. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement recognized that the need for self-defense still existed — in fact, Martin Luther King Jr. applied for (and was denied) a concealed carry permit. Recounting his memories of “Freedom Summer” and the Civil Rights Movement, Charles E. Cobb Jr., former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said, “I know from personal experience and the experiences of others, that guns kept people alive, kept communities safe, and all you have to do to understand this is simply think of black people as human beings and they’re gonna respond to terrorism the way anybody else would.”
Keep pulling on that thread and you only find more. Black people weren’t the only ones on the losing side of the centralized model. New York’s Sullivan Act, passed in 1911, was among the first of its kind, a state-wide law requiring a permit before you could possess a handgun (i.e. a law about what type of guns are allowed), and giving county officials discretion on who to approve (i.e. a law about who can get those guns). Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times article about the first conviction under the Sullivan Law, in which they quote the judge talking to the defendant, one Marino Rossi who’d been traveling to New Haven to take a new job. For context, this was in the midst of a major, multi-decade wave of Italian immigration to the US, and anti-Italian discrimination was common:
“You are the first one to be sentenced under the so-called Sullivan law”, said Judge Foster solemnly. “The Legislature of this State has made it a felony to carry concealed weapons about the person. You say you have had this gun for two years, and that it was the custom of yourself as well your countrymen to carry guns. You say you did not realize that you were breaking the law in so doing.
“It is unfortunate that this is the custom with you and your kind, and that fact, combined with your irascible nature, furnishes much of the criminal business in this country….”
Gustav A. Kessler, a night watchman, was also up for sentence after he had been found guilty of violating the Sullivan act. He failed to get a permit. His defense was that he had to work late at night in a dangerous part of the city, and wanted a revolver for protection against gangsters. He said he did not get a permit because he did not feel that he could spare $10 of his small wages to carry a $5 revolver. Judge Foster puts his case over to Friday, when he will sentence him, saying:
“It is just such unauthorized carrying of firearms which is most fruitful of crimes. I will remand you to the Tombs until Friday to decide upon what course I shall take in regard to your case. In the meantime my opinion is that justice requires that severe punishment should be meted out to you in order that the community may realize that the carrying of a concealed gun is illegal unless carried with a permit. I have discussed this with the District Attorney and am undecided.”
These racist and/or abusive historical accounts are eye-opening, but don’t give a full picture of the centralized model. In truth, the vast majority of decision-making in that model is much less cartoonishly authoritarian. Most of the time, the news that you’re not in the authority-approved group doesn’t come as a dog bite or a firehose or a mob. It comes as a polite, professional letter on department stationery.
The Sullivan Act is still in place, and police in New York City are known as the stingiest in the state about who gets a permit. When you get denied, you can start a court case to appeal the denial. @2Aupdates on Twitter runs a database of those modern-day court cases, and looking through them is instructive. A couple sample reasons of why people have been denied permits:
The permit in NYC costs $340 for application fee and $88.25 for fingerprint fees, requires at least two multi-hour visits to police headquarters, and is only good for three years. You don’t get the fees back if the permit is denied.
There are plenty of other examples. Stop-and-frisk in NYC, the gun law enforcement program whereby the NYPD did hundreds of thousands of warrantless patdowns of (90 percent black or Latino) pedestrians each year. The Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force, a police unit which devolved into framing people and performing literal armed robberies of cash and drugs. Red flag laws which, passed under the banner of safety, quickly become another lever for police — in Seattle, 97.2% of red flags are initiated by police, not by family or friends or mental health professionals.
Fundamentally, this model (which has historically been dominant) says that a central authority decides whose gun rights mean something. That authority is more or less permissive in different jurisdictions, and to be sure, some jurisdictions are less abusive than others. But the common thread is that it’s up to them.
There’s a frequent shape of online talking-past-each-other that goes like this:
Gun control folks: “Ha, let’s see how gun rights people like it if black people start getting into guns.“
Gun rights folks: “Um, cool? We think that’s awesome, gun rights are human rights. And a lot of us are black.”
The reason for that misunderstanding is what we ran through earlier in this piece: gun control is actually just a particular flavor of the centralized model of gun rights. So its adherents come at this from the understanding that everyone’s on the centralized model, and they’re just disagreeing about who should get the steering wheel. So of course they’d predict racism on the other side: they have good reason to! Historically, the centralized model has been used by powerful groups to control weaker groups. That’s how it works, by definition.
But today’s gun rights community is as confused by that as they are insulted. They’re not coming from the centralized model, where gun rights flow through a central authority. Gun rights people today are native to the decentralized model, where gun rights — the right to self-defense, really — are intrinsic to all people, with no authority needed (or wanted) to bless them.
So on one side, you’ve got gun control people arguing about which particular flavor of centralized model ought to be law. On the other side, you’ve got gun rights people arguing for the decentralized model. Each side thinks their model is the one that the other side should value. So weird things happen when they argue.
This confusion is understandable, though, because in a way, the decentralized model is very new. The 20th century was prime time for the centralized one — post-Reconstruction gun laws in the south, the Sullivan Act, may-issue laws in dozens of states, the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, the 10-year federal assault weapons ban passed in 1994, and a variety of state-level bans and permitting regimes.
People objected throughout, but to little avail. There was nothing like the pro-gun-rights efforts you see today. The reason why is almost tautological, and springs from the rules of the centralized model itself. In a world where you need the authority’s blessing to exist, you either make the authority-approved version of your thing, or you disappear. So, some people made the authority-approved version of gun rights — discriminatory carry permits, feature bans, weakening of Fourth Amendment protections for gun carriers, and so on.
Note that this definition of “some people” lumps together gun control advocates and fudds (the colloquial, somewhat pejorative term for halfway gun rights advocates). The reason is simple: the defining belief of both groups is a trust in the central authority to make the right decision about who may own which guns. That’s quintessential centralized model thinking.
Others objected, but without the authority’s blessing, they didn’t get far, and as far as history is concerned, they effectively didn’t exist. (Some miscellaneous interesting history on this: a New York Times letter to the editor arguing against the Sullivan Act of 1911, the NRA’s unsuccessful push to lobby against the NFA of 1934, and an excellent account by redditor tablinum of the passage of the GCA of 1968.)
That seems unsolvable. In the centralized model, whoever’s in control isn’t going to give you permission to throw them out. So how do changes ever happen? Well, you change the game so that you can go ahead whether they like it or not.
This is where I should mention that our name is not an accident. We’re called Open Source Defense because technology is the reason that the decentralized model of gun rights is able to exist. Guns are a small part of a much bigger wave: strong encryption; emergent phenomena on social media; literal revolutions precipitated by everyone everywhere having an internet-connected HD video camera in their pocket; cryptocurrency; the kicking-and-screaming death and rebirth of, oh, the entire music, TV, and film industries; the list goes on. The defining feature of the internet is that in a way with zero historical precedent, you can do x without permission. For increasingly broad definitions of x. With no apparent ceiling in sight.
Which circles us back to where we started. The protests. COVID. The epochal spike of new gun owners. The sudden expansion in who’s talking about guns, and how they’re talking about them. In the centralized model of gun rights, none of this makes sense. The lines about who’s into guns, who’s not, and how we talk about it were drawn by central authorities over centuries, and they reflect the attitudes of those authorities.
So from within that frame, it’s hard to explain how millions of new people could suddenly decide to buy a gun. Or how minority gun ownership could be universally lauded, with some of those owners even being leaders within the community. Or how for most owners, guns aren’t about hunting or sport shooting, they’re about (to paraphrase Ice-T from a few thousand words ago) protecting yourself when the central authority fails to.
The decentralized model explains it pretty handily. People have an intrinsic demand for self-defense. And they’ll take care of that demand, working around obstacles if necessary. In the centralized model, their ability to do so is mediated by police or a permitting office. In the decentralized model, it’s mediated by the internet. Guess which one moves faster.
In our last essay (“Guns are a virus. But not in the way people think.”), I used contagion animations to explain the mechanics behind why ideas — like gun ownership — that spread via the internet are self-reinforcing:
… remember the final animation, where the outbreak blazes through high-density patches in the network? That matters not just for the high-density patch; it also makes nodes in the low-density patches more likely to catch the meme. The lesson, then, is simple: build high-density patches. And again, the gun meme benefits from the happenstance of existing in modern times: the internet is the most powerful tool ever created for building high-density networks. The networks are easier to build than ever, possible to build denser than ever, and possible to build bigger than ever. So we’ve got an exponentially growing set of networks (because the internet itself is a contagion with outrageously high R0) that are unprecedentedly numerous, dense, and large. If your goal is “build high-density patches”, that’s very good news.
That’s why we always say that people who want to spread gun rights should just make more gun owners. That increases network density, and in a decentralized network, the rest takes care of itself. Well, in a five-month span, we just had the two biggest influxes of new gun owners in history. Let’s see how the decentralized model’s prediction plays out.