Tuesday, July 10, 2012

For the last time, guns aren't much like knives

Stop me if you've heard this one before:
Even if you managed somehow to ban all guns, are you going to ban knives too?  And axes?  And baseball bats?   If people can't get guns, they'll just use whatever they can get to kill with.
Not quoting anyone specifically here, but this general sentiment is repeated ad-nauseum in every gun control debate by gun-rights proponents.

Ok, listen up gun people.  There are two big things wrong with this general idea of equating guns with almost anything else that could be used as a weapon:

1) Guns are a lot more lethal than all those other things. 

Sometimes differences in scale are big enough to be differences in kind, and this is one of those times.  Guns in particular have the advantage of lethal at range, and requiring next to no physical strength and little skill to remain lethal.  The tragedy of a toddler killing someone with a gun is hardly unheard of, but do we ever hear of a bat going off in the hands of a toddler and killing a sibling?  Is there such a thing as a "drive by stabbing"?  I can only think of one mass murder which was carried out with a knife, and the victims were two women and a bunch of primary school aged children.  Meanwhile multi-murder events using guns are almost a monthly occurrence. 

There is a reason that guns are the primary weapon of every military's ground forces, and it's this.  There's only a few things generally more lethal than guns and that category has items like explosives and WMDs in it, which actually often makes them too lethal for most practical use (since they're hard to use without also killing yourself).  This category of "more lethal than guns" is also coincidentally comprised of items more heavily restricted, banned and/or regulated than firearms, and as far as I know, not even the most extreme members of the NRA argue that Stinger missiles, anthrax or hand grenades should be available for ordinary civilian use.  I know I'm belabouring the point here, but I really can't understand why anyone making the sort of point above could do so while being conscious of the vast disparity in lethal capacity between guns and nearly anything else an average person can get ahold of. 

2) Guns don't have uses other than as weapons.

The second thing wrong with this gun talking point is that it forgets the singular nature of guns as weapons.  That's all they are.  The only way to use them without killing anything is target practice, which is just practicing to be better at using them as weapons (and still requires elaborate care and safety procedures to ensure no one is harmed by mistake).  Obviously not everyone who target shoots will shoot some living thing with a gun, but that's still the point of target shooting.  Not everyone who practices martial arts gets into real fights, but no one disputes becoming effective at physical combat is an essential goal of martial arts.

Knives and those other objects have other non-weapons uses.  Knives in particular are indispensible as kitchen implements, in carpentry, surgery, camping and a host of other places where one needs something sharp to do something other than violence to a living being.  This is true of all the other objects generally named in this argument.  What's also true is many of them are so commonplace as to be effectively unregulatable.  How could we ban "blunt objects" even if we wanted to?  Sure, high security places like prisons or airplanes manage it, but in everyday life the host of objects that can double as clubs is innumerate.  It's reasonable to say "you can't take a crowbar onto a flight" but not to ban them from everyday use, where they're often useful. 

Guns are uniquely regulatable in this because they don't have other uses and there aren't hundreds of everyday objects that can be easily used as guns in a pinch.  You can build a gun if you're some kind of metalsmith or machinist with a set of specialized tools, but it's not something any ordinary object is easily converted into.  Prisoners often craft knives (or at least stabbing shanks) out of things as common as toothbrushes.  Prisons have good reason to go the lengths necessary to restrict even knives and things that could plausibly be turned into knives, but we could not run the wider world under such rules (even so, we do place some restrictions on knives, such as the length of knife one can carry concealed).  Effective restrictions on guns require no such lengths and burden on everyday life.

The argument to regulate or ban guns rests on guns being especially amenable to restriction due to their very specialized use cases, and to the high degree of inherent risk to life and limb from any use of them.   If knives or baseball bats met those criteria, then liberals would be talking about banning or regulating them too.  If there was something as lethal as guns but was also an indispensible daily-use household item or easily crafted from common indispensible items, we would probably just have to accept the downsides of these lethal weapons as part of life, focusing solely on every other social factor that would cause someone to use this item to do harm to themself or others.  Guns are not such a necessary evil, because they're simply not necessary and they enable great evil.

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