The Cold War of Guns

As the mainstream political debate over gun ownership continues, so does the tendency for the two major political parties of the United States to sound like echo chambers. Democrats typically play offense by pushing legislation ranging from an increase in gun control to outright banishment of certain firearms. Whereas Republicans play defense, invoking the Second Amendment as an assurance of the right to bear arms, as scripted in a certuries old declaration of inalienable rights. Both parties perceive a lack of progress in their causes, and in some cases would argue points of regression. But as the New Year rolls in so do new laws in Texas, California, and Seattle that exemplify the contrasting ideologies. Where Democrats in Oregon and California envision an idealistic future without the need for guns through regulation and taxation, Republicans in Texas hold to a fatalistic realism of a world where guns are not only a necessary tool in preserving the oneself and the country, but as an intrinsic part of the American life.

The mass shootings in Colorado and California brought the conversation back to the forefront, with the two atrocities providing a proxy in the ongoing war on guns. Back in December, President Barack Obama gave little to work with on how to combat the unceasing frequency of gun violence. The President now plans to discuss the details of a pending executive order during a televised town hall meeting on January 7th, which will undoubtly include tighter regulation. House Speaker Paul Ryan, playing Washington Republicans' lead, has argued for greater focus on mental health. Despite the shaky-at-best, and often times stigmatizing, connection between mental illness and violence, and setting aside the GOP's continued efforts to cut funding to social services, which includes mental healthcare, the focus on mental health and greater gun control are not mutually exclusive solutions.

However, a third solution has recently become more prevalent in debates and codified into law. The solution stems from the belief that more guns lead to greater safety and security and supposes that widespread gun ownership is the best deterence to gun violence.

In response to the San Bernandino shooting, New York's Ulster County Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum urged the people of his county to "take advantage of [their] legal right to carry a firearm.". More recently, Wisconsin State Representive Bob Gannon advocated for his constituents taking up arms to "help clean our society of these scum bags" by ensuring a situation where a potential shooter would think twice should there be a "law abiding CCW [Concealed Carry Weapon] holder" that is "fully prepared to shoot center mass ... to eliminate the threat". And as of January 1st, Texas has joined the ranks of 25 other states by permitting the open-carry of handguns. The interpretation of the Second Amendment appears to have gone beyond the suggestion of self-defense and into a necessitation that citizens arm themselves and act as of preventative measures.

This strategy is straight out of a Cold War handbook: using the threat of a strong weapon against an enemy in order to prevent an enemy's use of the same weapon. Proponents argue that maintaining a well armed and trained citizenry is the only reasonable and realistic method of curbing gun violence. The aim being to create an environment of mutually assured destruction (MAD) in hopes of keep citizens in check of one another. This exact tactic was used during the Cold War and was craftily lampooned in Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove. This MAD strategy was executed by the United States and Soviet Union by participating in, what at the time appeared to be, an endless nuclear arms race. The two superpowers stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons as a clear signal to each other that any attempt of attack would seal each other's fate of total annihilation. In theory, this would restraining each other from attacking. It seems to have been a success: we are all still here, and not a single nuclear bomb was used during this period in an offensive attack. Though, this environment bred a paranoid and distrust that underpinned the tensions between two nations, and throughout the entire world, for decades.

A similar paranoia of being caught in the crossfire of a vilgilante or between the crosshairs of an unhinged individual has been felt by a number of people, businesses, and police chiefs throughout Texas.

But let's suppose we could live with the paranoia, do more guns lead to a safer society? The often cited advocate for CCW as a deterrence from crime, John R Lott Jr. is most notable for his book More Guns, Less Crime, in which Lott makes the straightforward claim that an armed victims raise the costs faced by a potential offender. In his work, Lott cites statistics that appear to show a correlation between conceal handgun laws and homicide rates. In an interview about his book Lott points to a 2-3 percent drop in murder, rape, and robbery rates in places with greater numbers of concealed handgun permits. However, Lott's conclusion has faced numerous challenges including conflicting evidence that suggests the cited drop in crime rates predated the passage of CCW laws and an entire disappearance of Lott's results when his data set is extended forward in time to account for number of other laws enacted at the time and after. This led economist Steven Levitt to conclude, ultimately, that there appears to be little basis for believing that concealed weapons laws have had an appreciable impact on crime.

The relationship between gun ownership and gun related deaths is better visualized in a series of charts developed by Mark Reid, a machine learning researcher at the Austrailian National University. Mark Reid is careful to state that he makes no claim that these charts illustrate causation. Although there is an unmistakable trendline: the more guns, the more gun deaths. Other studies have found states with stricter gun laws also have lower rates of gun deaths, that murder rates are higher in areas where guns are more prevalent, and that higher gun ownership potentially makes countries less safe.

All of this is not to argue that solely regulation, or taxation, or better mental healthcare are the solution to curbing gun violence. Rather that the alternative of deterrence through a mutually assured destruction is a regressive step on the path toward a more civilized society.