Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sullum vs. Pennington

After the Ft. Hood shooting there were so many articles and blog posts flying around it was hard to keep them straight. Both sides of the gun argument were represented. I posted here about the comments made on the Brady Blog by Doug Pennington criticizing Jacob Sullum. I hadn't been aware of the response until just yesterday I thankfully received it in my inbox.

Hasan Had a Carry Permit (and Other Irrelevancies)

A couple of responses to my column about the Fort Hood massacre are notable for their red herrings.

Doug Pennington, assistant director of communications at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says his boss, Paul Helmke, is not "breathtakingly inane"; I am. So there. The Helmke comment I so labeled, you may recall, was his insistence that "more guns" can only make things worse in a situation like the Fort Hood massacre, when in fact it was "more guns" (in the hands of two police officers) that put a stop to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's shooting rampage. Pennington responds with a series of irrelevancies.

First Pennington implies that I want to override the decisions of business owners who decide not to allow guns on their property. I've never advocated that; in fact, I have faulted the NRA for doing so. In my column I did not even argue that people have a constitutional right to carry guns on public property, let alone on a military base. I merely questioned the wisdom of "gun-free zones" as a crime-fighting tactic.

Next Pennington notes that Hasan qualified for a Virginia concealed carry permit in 1996, since at that point he had a clean record. I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove. Is Pennington suggesting that the lack of a permit deters mass murderers from carrying their weapons in public? The general problem with legal restrictions on gun possession (as I'm sure Pennington has heard) is that criminals do not obey them, while their law-abiding victims do.

Pennington reiterates that Hasan used 20-round magazines, meaning that he had to reload less often than if he'd used 10-round magazines. True enough, but as I said in the column, the extra few seconds did not matter much until Hasan was confronted by people who also had guns. Sgt. Mark Todd shot Hasan while he was reloading. Not surprisingly, none of his unarmed victims tried to rush him during the two seconds it takes to change magazines, although given the number of rounds he fired they would have had four or five opportunities to do so.

Pennington also reiterates that Hasan used a pistol capable of firing armor-piercing rounds, although "the ammunition type that the Fort Hood killer used has not yet been reported." I'm still not getting why this matters, since the special capability Hasan's ammunition may or may not have had apparently played no role in his crime.

Over at True/Slant, Chris Thomas concedes that the Fort Hood massacre could have been cut short by a gun in the hands of someone who was on the scene when the shooting started. But he faults me for failing to consider the impact that letting people carry firearms in more places would have on fatalities from gun accidents. "The death toll from [gun accidents] far outstrips the body counts at Fort Hood and Virginia Tech," Thomas writes. But this comparison is meaningless. The total number of fatalities from gun accidents in 2006, the latest year for which the CDC has data, was 642. That is indeed greater than the fatalities at Fort Hood and Virginia Tech combined, but so what? The total number of homicides by gun in 2006 was about 12,800*. If arming more victims and bystanders prevented even 1 percent of those deaths, the benefit would far outweigh any deaths from additional accidents.

According to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, most gun accidents occur at home. Furthermore, since 1987, when Florida began the trend toward "shall issue" carry permit laws (which 39 states now have), the number of gun-accident fatalities per year has fallen by more than 50 percent. In other words, the rising prevalence of people legally carrying guns in public has been associated with a decline in fatal gun accidents. On the face of it, there is little reason to think that letting people with carry permits bring their guns to more locations would lead to a noticeable increase in fatal accidents, let alone an increase big enough to outweigh the self-defense benefit.

Mr. Sullum devotes a good part of his rebuttal to refuting the idea that by arming people the increased accidents would be a serious problem. I believe this gets to the heart of the question, but it is deceptive. The question to which this discussion points us is, generally stated, do guns do more good than harm. The deception is in addressing the pro-gun argument to the increase in accidents and leaving out the increase in murders and suicides.

No one ever said that accidents are the biggest concern. As tragic as they are, and as sure as it is that they would greatly increase on military bases if the young men were armed, accidents represent a tiny fraction of the problem which is intentional gun violence.

In other words, if all the soldiers and marines on all the bases were armed all the time, we'd have more frequent incidents like the Maj. Hasan meltdown. Granted they wouldn't be able to enjoy five or ten minutes of uninterrupted shooting, they'd be stopped sooner, but the increased frequency of these incidents would more than make up for that.

This is all conjecture, of course, but it's exactly the same kind of conjecture the pro-gun folks engage in when they say "IF only the others could have been armed, this would have been stopped sooner."

What's your opinion? Please leave a comment.


  1. if all the soldiers and marines on all the bases were armed all the time, we'd have more frequent incidents like the Maj. Hasan meltdown.

    There are other options between the absurd policy of having military bases "gun free zones" and arming everyone all the time. I would agree that it would not be a good policy to have guns in most enlisted barracks, but senior NCO's and officers should either be trustworthy enough to go armed, or are not trustworthy enough to do their job.

    Most of the problems with immaturity and horseplay could be dealt with by having the less mature troops carry as part of their job--check a gun in and out at the beginning and end of the duty day. Problems aren't likely to be while on duty, but rather while off duty and particularly while drinking.

    Hasan's meltdown does not appear to be a spur of the moment affair, and restrictions didn't stop him.

  2. Mikeb: "In other words, if all the soldiers and marines on all the bases were armed all the time, we'd have more frequent incidents like the Maj. Hasan meltdown."

    I disagree. Those with evil intent and willing to disobey the rules like Maj. Hasan still have access and opportunity to use a gun for their crime.

    Make acess harder? Hasan had a VA permit, showing that he would have qualified to buy a gun under most "gun control" laws. Ban all personal gun ownership? There is evidence that even that does not reduce the access to guns to those with evil intent and willing to disobey the law.

  3. "IF only the others could have been armed, this would have been stopped sooner."

    Swap the words "could" and "would" and that would be what you have heard advocated.

    Words matter.

  4. Sevesteen, As usual your comment makes the most sense. Of course, I'd worry about those senior NCOs and Officers, Hasan was one of them after all. But your idea sure would take care of the horseplay problem.

  5. "Of course, I'd worry about those senior NCOs."

    Well of course MikeB. You don't trust anyone with a gun.

  6. You can't protect against evil by restricting the freedom of decent people. Hasan was an officer, but he was not issued a gun. Didn't stop him, did stop the people who should have been able to defend against him.

    Had issuing guns been so widespread that the medical corps got them, it is very likely he would not have "snapped", or at least not in the same way. Most spree shooters avoid places where people shoot back.