The Larger Context: Handguns Make People Dangerously Stupid

I’m saddened but not surprised by the Zimmerman verdict. Too many people in the U.S. fail to understand that guns make people behave very foolishly. A sane society would wonder how could Zimmerman possibly think it’s a good idea to confront a potential criminal (from his perspective) with a firearm, since the odds are that someone is going to get shot. I’m guessing that if Zimmerman hadn’t had the gun, Martin is still alive right now. Even if Zimmerman had still had decided to confront Martin without a gun, the odds that someone gets killed drop dramatically in the absence of a firearm.

That’s why I break with the current incarnation of the gun control movement: I really don’t care if people have long-barrel rifles or shotguns, since the majority of gun deaths occur with handguns. The latter should be banned.

If you give enough people this kind of easy-to-wield power, some of them will behave stupidly.

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16 Responses to The Larger Context: Handguns Make People Dangerously Stupid

  1. Gingerbaker says:


    Guns make people act foolishly? An assertion you buttress with an anecdote with N=1. Meanwhile, there are 300-500 million guns in the U.S., and all of them, to a statistical nicety, never get involved in any tragedy over the course of their existence.

    You don’t like handguns, fine. Yet, you call for them to be banned, when the Supreme Court has just said on two occasions that banning them is unconstitutional. By your own definition, you appear to be a gun owner.

    It’s your blog, to say whatever you please….. but this is dreadful writing.

  2. SLC says:

    If Zimmerman hadn’t had a gun, he would never have gotten out of his car and pursued Martin. The gun gave him false courage.

  3. delagar says:

    Oh, gingerbaker. Google gun deaths in America. Every week will show you some idiot (or that idiot’s five year old) doing something stupid with a handgun. Or have you just not been paying attention?

    Yes, *most* guns in America were not, today, used stupidly. But that’s partly because we have so very, very, very many guns in America, isn’t it? The odds are with your individual gun-owner not being an idiot this *precise* day!

    • Gingerbaker says:

      “Yes, *most* guns in America were not, today, used stupidly. ”

      Oh, delagar. Thanks for making my argument for me.

      • delagar says:

        Yes, way to miss the point.

        “We have lots and lots and lots people riding around in cars without seat belts and *most* of them didn’t die today! Why do you claim we should put seat belts in cars!”

        “Why, when I was a kid, toddlers rode standing up in the front seat! Lots and lots and lots and lots of them! Hardly any of them died on any given day! Why do we need cars seats?”

        “In America today, we have lots and lots and lots of infants, and only two or three in any given summer get accidentally left in the cars by their parents to bake to death! Why would we need to install motion sensors in car seats? PSHAW!!”

        I mean, GINGERBAKER (probably) isn’t going to accidentally shoot anyone today. Or shoot anyone who doesn’t deserve to be shot. And neither is his five year old. Or his neighbor’s teenager. Or that neighbor’s five year old.

        So WTF, right?

  4. Dbp says:

    But if everyone carried a gun the not idiots could shoot the idiot before he stupids someone to death!!!! Problem solved

    /NRA dumbfuck logic

  5. The very odd SCOTUS decision that the second amendment applies to handguns notwithstanding, I think MIke’s basic argument (an argument sketch, really) is sound. Handguns really have no place in a civilized society, and they don’t even make sense given the crazy “militia” theory of the 2nd amendment. It would make *far* more sense, from a public safety standpoint, to permit “assault” rifles and ban handguns, than the reverse. And it even makes more sense given the plain language of the amendment (it still doesn’t make much sense, but whatever).

    As for Ginger’s request that we move beyond an N of 1, it’s easily done. Here are just two relevant links, found in about 30 seconds of searching:
    “Action alters object identification: Wielding a gun increases the bias to see guns.” You give someone a gun, they misperceive harmless objects as “guns” more often. Sounds like “handguns make people dangerously stupid” to me!
    People who carry handguns are more likely to get themselves shot (and killed) then those who don’t, even controlling for a number of variables. Why? The best hypotheses available all point towards carrying a gun changing ones behavior, and given that those changes increase ones chances of getting killed, I’m happy with “handguns make people dangerously stupid” as a summary.

    This one isn’t quite as on-topic, but the study is getting a bit of press today, for obvious reasons:
    It is relevant, in that it suggests that if you change the laws to permit people with guns to claim self-defense, when they could simply have walked away from the fight instead, homicides go up. Again, this holds even controlling for all kinds of potentially confounding factors. So, creating a culture in which carrying around a gun for “self-defense” is considered acceptable behavior, that makes people act stupid, too.

    • Gingerbaker says:

      ” So, creating a culture in which carrying around a gun for “self-defense” is considered acceptable behavior, that makes people act stupid, too.”

      No, it doesn’t mean that at all. It means that, if the study is valid, stand your ground laws may not a great idea.

      “You give someone a gun, they misperceive harmless objects as “guns” more often. Sounds like “handguns make people dangerously stupid” to me! “

      Really dreadfully bad conclusion from a single laboratory volunteer study.

      “People who carry handguns are more likely to get themselves shot (and killed) then those who don’t, even controlling for a number of variables. Why? The best hypotheses available all point towards carrying a gun changing ones behavior, and given that those changes increase ones chances of getting killed, I’m happy with “handguns make people dangerously stupid” as a summary. ”

      Considering the author of that quoted study says: ” “We don’t have an answer as to whether guns are protective or perilous,” another really bad conclusion arises in your cherry-picking demonstration, it seems.

      And don’t forget – we see proof of the opposite side of the coin with Mad Mike’s post. Evidently, advocating gun control makes Mike stupid: He’s calling for banning handguns, an unconstitutional act. How smart is that? ;>)

      • Ging — I don’t see how advocating a policy, even one that would be unconstitutional, is evidence of one being “stupid.” Again, until the recent SCOTUS decision, overturning years of precedents, that handguns kept by individuals for personal protection in the home were covered by the second amendment, banning handguns would not have been an unconstitutional act. Given even minor changes in the Court, it may well come to pass that it would not be unconstitutional at some future date. All this is irrelevant, because, given the culture of the U.S., the chances of a handgun ban going anywhere in the foreseeable future is about zero.

        BUT, from a public health and safety standpoint, the argument that handguns are the major gun problem to grapple with seems undeniable (that they aren’t much good for hunting, or for home protection, or for dressing up and playing militia, would seem to be a good reason to think no one should miss them much, either, but that’s rather more personal). And that, as a moral matter, they *should* be banned remains a reasonable argument to make, whether doing so would be constitutional or not. Were arguments against segregated schools — that segregation *should* be illegal! — “stupid” because of a previous SCOTUS decision that segregation was constitutional? Should we just say that once there is a SCOTUS decision, at any point in time, all arguments to the effect that the decision was wrong are just “stupid”? That, even in cases where the constitution is perhaps clear, there is no moral force to arguments for policies that would be unconstitutional (and hence might require — gasp! — changing the constitution in order to be implemented)? That seems wrong. Was every change to our constitution after the Bill of Rights therefore merely the result of “stupid” people being “stupid”? Come on, you can’t really think that, can you?

        Look, how many studies do you really need to be convinced that a person with a gun is, statistically, more likely to act in ways that are reckless than a person without a gun? If you don’t think that having a gun will, on average, make people more likely to engage in behaviors that are risky, I don’t believe that you’ve really thought about it. I pointed out that the two studies I cited I found in minutes. It’d be easy find more, but if you really think that people that walk around carrying guns are no more likely to look for trouble, or at least to not avoid trouble, than those who don’t, I don’t think more studies are going to convince you.

        One small thing to consider: when surveyed, gun owners report using their guns to prevent crime at very high rates. Rates far, far higher than the background rate of crimes in the communities from which they are drawn. Either gun owners are the unluckiest people around — attracting criminals to themselves like moths to porch-lights — or (one example) having a gun in the house encourages people who hear noises outside at night to grab their guns, go storming off into their yards waving their guns around, and then, when asked, reporting that they successfully prevented yet another home invasion. If you think you hear an intruder, and you don’t have a gun, you lock your bedroom door, call the police, and hide. Usually, this results in no one dying. Yes, very very rarely, it really is an intruder, and, even more rarely, they really do want to harm you (rather than run away when they realize they’ve entered an occupied home), and you’re fucked. Doesn’t happen often. But I don’t want to pretend that it never does. If you have a gun, and you think you hear something, you go out to confront the bastards. In that case, if someone actually is there (intruder, drunk child sneaking in after a party, confused relative) there is a chance that someone will get killed. If it is an intruder, with a gun, the chances aren’t bad that you’re getting killed, your gun notwithstanding. Every study — dozens and dozens — show that having a gun in the house makes it more likely you’ll die by a gunshot wound, not less. Mostly that’s because it is an easy suicide route, and of course, accidents. But not entirely. Acting like a hero and confronting armed intruders isn’t good for your health, either.

        I recognize, based on your previous comments, that none of this will convince you. And, given the impossibility of passing any legislation what would meaningfully limit the ability of Americans to own and carry firearms, none of this really matters from a practical standpoint. But I think it is disingenuous — and kind of weird! — to pretend that someone who is carrying a gun is going to react to a situation that they perceive as threatening in the same way as someone who is unarmed. I can’t think of any reason to believe that, and, again, all the evidence we have seems to point against it. I don’t know what’s gained by pretending that it is true.

        Maybe you think it isn’t “stupid” to confront potentially dangerous people rather than trying to get out of the situation (and then, if necessary, calling the police). Maybe you want to argue that a few extra deaths from people escalating situations like that are worth it — that backing down in the face of perceived threats is worse than risking killing someone, or being killed. If that’s the case, then perhaps the argument isn’t about the empirical claims at all, but about the word “stupid.” But that doesn’t seem to be your claim, and so I’m left just wondering whether you really think that having a gun available doesn’t influence your actions at all. And again, that claim just seems crazy.

        • Gingerbaker says:

          Perhaps you have not read a couple of my other posts here about gun control, but this knee-jerk reaction by Mad Mike, and a hell of a lot of others around the web, to demand or argue for banning handguns is a pet peeve of mine. A hot button.

          Believe it or not, I am a progressive liberal. And I want to see progress made on truly important issues, like global warming, election reform, universal healthcare, etc.And to accomplish those goals, we need to elect more people on the political left.

          Every time Mike starts shouting about banning handguns, the only constructive thing it does is give Karl Rove another orgasm, as he gleefully anticipates electing even more dumb ass redneck Republicans to Congress. Elected because of the huge dedicated turnout of one-issue redneck voters, who are there at the polls only because useful idiots like Mike drive them there to protect their 2nd Amendment rights. Rights that are not in danger, of course ->because banning handguns is now unconstitutional<-.

          So, as another year goes by, and nothing gets done on global warming, lay a portion of that at the feet of people like Mike. Who prefer the useless catharsis of looking tough on gun control to being pragmatic about issues that will effect billions.

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  7. So… I just want to be clear here. Is your position that it is *tactically* “stupid” to argue for restrictions on guns, given that arguments for restrictions on guns invariably lead to more gun-supporters voting, donating money, etc., and that this both makes it unlikely that guns will be meaningful regulated, and makes other (terrible) policy outcomes more likely? That’s a plausible position; given the political impossibility of passing meaningful gun control in this country, arguing for it may serve only to energize the pro-gun branch of the right-wing base, and not accomplish any meaningful goals. I have, myself, publicly argued in the past that President Obama should stay well clear of all gun control talk, given the poisonous way it would interact with the racism on the right. I think events have unfolding such that a reasonable person might conclude that I was right to argue that, as disappointing as I think that is.

    Or is your position, rather, that the policy advocated by Mike (say) is itself stupid, not because it is politically impossible, nor because arguing in its favor will have bad consequences, but rather because, as a matter of policy, it would be bad even if enacted without other horrible consequences; that is, is your position that the kinds of gun laws that exist in Japan, in many EU countries, Canada, etc., are bad policy — so bad in fact that they rise to the level of “stupid”? Or is it your contention that while such laws may be good policy in other countries, accidents of history, etc., make them bad policy here?

    • Gingerbaker says:

      The first, certainly.

      Number two – yes. It is stupid of Mike to demand a ban on handguns, not just tactically stupid. And not just because it is practically impossible. It is stupid because it is unconstitutional. I don’t know about you, but I happen to be of the persuasion that all civil liberties should be protected, they are precious – even the ones that a lot of people don’t like for a variety of moral and ethical reasons. Abortion rights comes to mind.

      And this ties into number three – the gun laws in other countries do not apply here. We have a unique Constitution. And the 2nd Amendment, of all the amendments, is very explicit and very unusual – it explicitly secures the explicit rights of explicitly people to own and use something explicit – guns. That right should be respected. (And we might as well, because it has now been upheld two or three times by the SC, and the chances of overriding the 2nd is negligible.)

      That doesn’t mean that gun violence is a topic I am not interested in, or that we can not address. But, thanks to the morons at the NRA, we don’t have very good data on gun violence, so talking intelligently about the topic is not very productive. My impression, however, is that most gun violence has to do with drugs and gangs. And that the most effective thing we could do to lower gun violence rates would be to legalize drugs. Strafing runs in Chicago stopped with the end of Prohibition.

      Maniacs on shooting rampages, while spectacularly depressing, kill very few people every year. Global warming, on the other hand, is going to kill billions of people and millions of species. We need to keep our eye on the ball. (I think we agree on that 🙂 )

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  9. Prof.Pedant says:

    “It is stupid because it is unconstitutional.”

    So anyone who feels that the Constitution is not perfect as written is ‘stupid’? What about if an amendment gets passed – does that mean that a ‘stupid argument’ becomes ‘not stupid’ once the amendment has passed? Or what if the Supreme Court overturns an earlier ruling – are the people who were arguing for the overturn of the earlier ruling stupid up until the moment that the Supreme Court rules?

  10. I’m with Pedant, here. First, because no one, Scalia in his more insane moments notwithstanding, thinks that the plain language of the constitution implies that all “arms” should be available for individual purchase, ownership, and “bearing” anywhere and at any time. (You can’t carry a rifle on a commercial plane! is that some terrible constitutional violation???) So no, the constitution does not in fact say “handguns kept for personal protection, except by convicted felons and other people we don’t like, shall be unregulated, except of course in the following ways…” I don’t want to get involved in a second amendment pissing contest, but, do keep in mind that first, for the vast majority of the U.S. jurisprudence history, the idea that the 2nd applied to the rights of arbitrary individual citizens to own guns would just have been considered laughable, and second, that “arms” is itself a weasel-word, and there is no justification for handguns that wouldn’t apply to anthrax or SL-SAMs or high-yield thermonuclear weapons, and anyone arguing that random assholes should be able to buy the latter and carry them around in public should be locked up as an insane person.

    What “individual right” is being impinged upon in a civilized society if we say, firstly, no, you don’t get to strap on a concealed weapon and walk around with it, because we live in a fucking civilized society and not some mythical wild west. And secondly, no, your right to own a gun doesn’t come without some serious responsibilities. You know, like being a responsible adult about it. You want to own a gun? Fine, you are liable, civilly and criminally, for anything and everything that is done with it. You insure it, you show that you are competent to handle it, and if you fuck up, you suffer the consequences of fucking up. Is that so unreasonable? Forget about what you believe our Constitution says — that’s a cop-out. Our Constitution said a few miserably offensive things. (Should blacks really only count as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of representation in the House and Electoral college? Was that a stupid change?) What individual right that matters to any sane human being is being infringed upon in a vaguely civilized society if we say, you know what? handguns are a bad fucking idea. No, you don’t get them. You also don’t get to stockpile anthrax, hoard SL-SAMs and RPGs, or work towards your own thermonuclear weapon. Don’t be an idiot. That’s not what we do in civilized societies. Grow the fuck up.

    Again, if you say “look, I just like handguns a lot, no real reason, and want them to be legal” I’ve got to say, OK, that’s a legitimate position, let’s talk about. You don’t have a constitutional right to collect miniature unicorns, but I don’t want to stand in your way if you aren’t hurting anyone. And the overall thrust of the constitution should be interpreted to mean that if there is no good reason to stop you from doing something, that thing should be legal. But what is it about guns that moves it from “I want to do x, and I can provide an argument that x is a legitimate interest of mine that the state shouldn’t impede” to “oh, no, this is a *right* and it doesn’t matter what harm it does, how stupid it is, etc., I get to do it.” (Please, please, don’t pretend that the 2nd has traditionally been applied to individuals and is somehow part of our sacred ancient mystical heritage — we all know that the application to individuals was made up out of whole clothe by right-wing NRA lunatics in the 1970s and 1980s, and pretending otherwise just makes you look crazy and ignorant of history.)

    (I happen to agree re: the stupidity of focusing on the occasional massacres — from a public health standpoint, these are pretty irrelevant. You are, however, mistaken re: shooting deaths more generally. The excess deaths that make some cities in the U.S. terrible compared to the U.S. average are the result of violence associated with gangs, etc. The excess deaths associated with the U.S. overall, however, are the result of the lethality of widely available guns, and to pretend otherwise is, again, to just be disingenuous or blind. Don’t pretend that the U.S. is just like Canada, but with gangs — statistically, that just doesn’t work. We are even less like Japan, but with gangs. Guns matter. If they didn’t, no one would want them…)

    I’m sympathetic to the position that gun-control advocates who want a better world should just shut the fuck up, because as long as black man is in the White House the racist assholes of the U.S. will freak out whenever gun control comes up, believing that he scary black man is coming for their tricked out Barbie dream-house AR-15s, and will then go out and vote and donate what little money they have and lend legitimacy to the real Republican agenda of funneling ever more money into the hands of ever fewer people. But that’s a tactical issue. We also should avoid talking about a guaranteed minimum income. Or reparations. But that’s not about what’s right; that’s about what we can hope to achieve, given the pathetic state of the discourse in this country.

    If the world you hope to achieve is a world where people regularly arm themselves with powerful semiautomatic weapons before heading out the door, frankly, that’s not a world I think any sane person should want to live in. That “right” isn’t a right worth protecting or fighting for or defending in anyway. If you think the best of way of achieving a world in which people don’t think that strapping on a gun and wandering out into the world is a remotely acceptable thing to do is to talk about something else for the next ten years or so, and work towards a time when we can actually have a sane conversation about the costs and benefits of individual gun ownership, then, yeah, that’s a reasonable position, and I’ve got to take you seriously. I may not like it, but that position might be right. The view that the right to keep a gun on you is important somehow? There, I need a lot more convincing. And vague references to a recent interpretation of our Constitution that in fact no one really take seriously isn’t going to convince me.

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