## The right to bear ICBMs

(Note for non-US readers: This will be another one of my America-centric posts.  But don’t worry, it’s probably one you’ll agree with.)

There’s one argument in favor of gun control that’s always seemed to me to trump all others.

In your opinion, should private citizens should be allowed to own thermonuclear warheads together with state-of-the-art delivery systems?  Does the Second Amendment give them the right to purchase ICBMs on the open market, maybe after a brief cooling-off period?  No?  Why not?

OK, whatever grounds you just gave, I’d give precisely the same grounds for saying that private citizens shouldn’t be allowed to own assault weapons, and that the Second Amendment shouldn’t be construed as giving them that right.  (Personally, I’d ban all guns except for the bare minimum used for sport-shooting, and even that I’d regulate pretty tightly.)

Now, it might be replied that the above argument can be turned on its head: “Should private citizens be allowed to own pocket knives?  Yes, they should?  OK then, whatever grounds you gave for that, I’d give the precisely same grounds for saying that they should be allowed to own assault weapons.”

But crucially, I claim that’s a losing argument for the gun-rights crowd.  For as soon as we’re anywhere on the slippery slope—that is, as soon as it’s conceded that the question hinges, not on absolute rights, but on an actual tradeoffs in actual empirical reality—then the facts make it blindingly obvious that letting possibly-deranged private citizens buy assault weapons is only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs.

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### 108 Responses to “The right to bear ICBMs”

1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

Bingo. That’s the question I always ask; if you really fear government takeover, then since the government owns all those nukes, shouldn’t every citizen be entitled to a personal tactical nuke as a safeguard against a potentially hostile government?

2. Lazy Libertarian Says:

I don’t know of any states that have a hold of tactical nukes for their own defense. There may indeed be one, I honestly don’t know, but if I were forced to wager on that possibility I’d put my money on the “does not have them” side of the table.

With that assumption in my back pocket, under this assault weapons ban, the state would be able to show up to my house, neighborhood, town, whatever with their assault rifles and I’d only have a nerf gun in comparison.

The right to bear arms was put in place to allow the citizens to protect themselves from governments. If that government removes the ability for the citizens to protect themselves….they win right? Now, do I have an irrational fear that will happen tomorrow? No. Just because I don’t believe it’s an imminent threat does not mean I’m willing to relinquish that right for my children, or my children’s children. Once rights are removed from the people, and the people succumb, that right is gone forever.

Seeing as how their is case law precedent that says the government has no responsibility to protect individual citizens, then that responsibility of protecting the individual citizens (me, my family, et al) falls on me and mine directly.

Now, how does that relate to your argument? I don’t have a problem with your reasoning. Just as you shouldn’t have a problem with my reasoning that I don’t believe that everyone should have tactical nuclear weapons or unlimited explosive ordinances but I don’t have a problem with “assault weapons”. We simply draw the line in different places, and other than gut feel, neither one of us has better or worse reasoning as to why they feel that way.

3. Vince Says:

There are two traditional responses against private ICBM ownership, and some huge definition issues:

1) Willingness to use a weapon of mass destruction by individual or govt is inherent evidence of insanity, insane people traditionally have various rights removed including the right to bear arms. Technically it should be legal for someone to purchase and possess a nerve gas land mine, however it should result in automatic involuntary mental health commitment, so why not just make it illegal, or whatever. Yeah, its messed up. So no privately owned H bombs or other weapons of mass destruction.

2) At least in theory any weapon allowed under 2nd amendment is dueling-capable or an actively fired one on one person weapon in order to avoid the involuntary insanity commitment above resulting from non-combatant danger. So pistols, rifles, knives, pepper spray all OK, but landmines, hand grenades, traps, all not legal.

The assault gun thing is irrelevant because they’re basically never used or owned by civilians. They’re a rather specialized military weapon, fully automatic, short barrel, small caliber rifle, high mag capacity, etc, usually poor accuracy and high fire rate. They never seem to be used in crimes against civilians (I can’t think of one, ever) so making them legal or illegal is pretty meaningless. Usually there’s a redefinition battle where after madman kills a bunch of people in a disarmed-victims-zone then pistols or black spray painted hunting rifles are attempted to be redefined as assault guns, but its all meaningless political posturing.

4. MostlyAPragmatist Says:

In debates about gun control, one statistic is often overlooked: If you own a handgun, you are more likely to use it to kill yourself than to kill someone else. Having a gun in the house dramatically increases your ability to act on a transient suicidal impulse. If you own a gun, when they pry it out of your cold, dead hand, most likely they will pry the other end out of your cold dead mouth.

And although I don’t wish anyone ill, when talking with gun rights advocates, I find it comforting that they are taking more risks with their own lives than with others’. I bet this is even more compelling if you’re a law-abiding citizen in a safe neighborhood.

Here are the stats:

In 2008, gun related homicides: 12,000
gun related suicides: 18,000

5. lylebot Says:

The only way you could possibly increase gun control at this point is by sending jackbooted government thugs to come take our guns. And then it won’t even work, just like Prohibition didn’t.

(Being sarcastic in case it isn’t clear. So-called “thoughtful conservative” Ross Douthat made roughly this argument recently. It boggles my mind that they refuse to see how greater control could be implemented without sending people to take their guns—for example, grandfather clauses, buyback programs, exchange programs, tax incentives, etc, etc, etc. And in arguing gun control won’t work, they fail to compare to all the places in the world where it *does* work.)

6. Guest Says:

You are not allowed to drink beer on a street, to smoke a cigar in a bar, or to pass an ice-cream selling car stopped on the opposite lane. You are not allowed to repair the roof or finish the basement in your “own” house, without letting the authorities to inspect it. You are not allowed to pick mushrooms or wild berries in a state-protected forest. Go ahead, remove the guns, and welcome to 1984!

7. Ergodic Says:

I recall some constitutional expert (judge?) discussing the use of the term “bear” as limiting the type of weapons to which the amendment applies. If you accept this, the 5th Amendment does not allow you to have nuclear warheads (tacnukes, maybe).

In my view trying, to read these anachronic scriptures as if there were a coherent set of axioms from which one derive exact conlusions is already giving up. They are more like a guideline.

8. GhiOm Says:

Pocket knives cut bread. I’ve never tried to cut bread with an assault rifle, and have never seen anyone do so.

The difference between pocket knives and assault weapons is that the former is not designed specifically to kill. That distinction does not apply to assault weapons / thermonuclear warheads : they both are designed specifically to kill.

9. JeffE Says:

I don’t buy the argument. Nothing _logically_ changes if you replace every instance of “private citizen” with “trained soldier”. Should professional infantrymen be issued their own personal thermonuclear weapons (and be trained in their use)? Why not? So then why do we issue our soldiers assault rifles?

Let me be clear: I agree with your _conclusion_. It’s your _argument_ that I disagree with.

10. WF Says:

the facts make it blindingly obvious that letting possibly-deranged private citizens buy assault weapons is only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs.

I would guess that the number of people who agree with this and who think that buying assault weapons should nevertheless be permitted on second amendment grounds is pretty small, though.

11. Josh Says:

It’s immoral to harm innocents, so the only weapons that are moral to own are the ones that can be to attack a chosen target without harming innocent bystanders. This is a fairly bright line that rules out nukes, but allows most guns, including so-called “assault weapons”. (As Wikipedia notes, gun-rights groups consider the term to be a pejorative when used to describe civilian firearms.)

12. Michael Vassar Says:

This all hinges on what you think the relationship between the citizens and the governed should be, and on what you think the empirical facts are regarding gun crimes and possible armed resistance.

Also, on what you think ‘should’ means. I personally don’t think many people have a consistent theory of that.

The word is “arms.” The constitutional question from this perspective is whether that word analytically continues to each of thermonuclear warhead, assault rifle, ricin, shotgun, hunting rifle, pistol, handgun, revolver and shot gun (I don’t know how to distinguish between most of the gun words I used, some of them might be synonyms for all I know.) The plausible answer may well differ for these different words.

More generally, it’s noteworthy (though predictable) that most legal theorists on this, as on all issues, find in the constitution the view congenial to their politics. Politicians are even worse. Hardly anyone takes an off-diagonal view – ‘I think guns are horrible, but the founders, in one of their less lucid moments, did give us the right to carry them’ or ‘guns are necessary to guarantee a free state and hold off tyranny, but the feckless founders only afforded this right to militias out of a desire for self-preservation’

In part no doubt this is because of the idolatrous regard for The Founders I saw in so many Americans. But more concretely, probably it’s just because amendments are hard. Still, I thought better might be expected from Scott. Surely the question ‘is this a stupid thing to have in the constitution’ is not identical to ‘is this stupid thing in the constitution’! I’m not arguing for the constitution-as-a-suicide-pact, but how odd it would be if every view in that >200 year old document happened to be ideal from the standpoint of policy regarding weapons not even in existence when it was composed!

Okay, re-reading, I’m pretty sure ‘shot gun’ and ‘shotgun’ are synonyms

Living in a city, with the associated fast response a 911 call would bring, I have no need or desire to own a gun. Were I to live in a rural area, though, where calling the police with an in-progress break-in might get a response in 10 minutes, I could feel differently. I realize that gun ownership is not without some very real, serious risks, but I still wouldn’t be comfortable being denied the right to adequately protect myself from a threat that I might actually need to face. This is different from nuclear weapons, which I would be extremely unlikely to actually need (assuming Canada accepts my demands for unconditional surrender by Thursday).

Broadly speaking, I believe there’s an inherent, inalienable, right to self defense. If it takes changes to the constitution to realize that right without also giving people the right to cause great collateral damage, then maybe it’s time to amend the 2nd amendment.

16. Phil Miller Says:

As a computer scientist like yourself, I believe definitions are important. Would you mind posting the definition of ‘assault weapon’ you’re using here?

The only objective definition I’ve seen is from the legislative Assault Weapons Ban, which was comically poor. It esentially targeted features that made weapons suitable for action movies, with no real bearing on their use in violent criminal acts. The proof of its irrelevance can be seen in manufacturers easily producing ‘AWB-compliant’ variants of every affected model shortly after the law went into effect.

Oh, and if your definition is going to include ‘automatic fire’, then congratulations, mission complete. Fully automatic weapons have been banned from civilian possession in the US since 1934.

Phil:

Your assertion that full-auto firearms have been banned from civilian possession in the US since 1934 is incorrect. See http://www.atf.gov/firearms/nfa/

However, owning one requires background checks and registration, and no *new* full-auto firearms can be registered since FOPA was passed in 1986. Full-auto firearms that were registered in 1986 can still be sold (and the price is quite high).

18. Chris Says:

This “trump” argument against “assault weapons” wins only against a strawman. As Phil Miller said, fully automatic weapons cannot legally be owned by civilians in the US. That leaves legal semi-automatic weapons (and below), which have various restrictions on magazine sizes etc. (I am not an expert).

Suppose we put aside the Constitutional questions and just consider Scott’s “actual tradeoffs in actual empirical reality.” On these grounds, how justified is Scott’s preferred policy “I’d ban all guns except for the bare minimum used for sport-shooting, and even that I’d regulate pretty tightly”?

Not very well, I’d say. Defensive gun use to ward off aggression is a pure good, even if — indeed, especially if — the gun only needs to be shown as a threat, and never fired. There is a huge amount of defensive gun use, though of course you would almost never hear about it in the news, because what is there to report?

On the other side of the ledger are the marginal harms attributable to legally owned guns (you can’t count against legal guns if the crazy person would have killed with a bomb instead, or used an illegal gun), minus the marginal harms attributable to prohibition. The first category is significant but not nearly as large as most would think, because, I repeat: marginal and legally owned. As for the second category, please see the War on Drugs.

19. Chris Says:

Josh’s (#11) bright line between guns and nukes is terrific. I have no problem making it illegal for civilians to own weapons that can’t be used without severely harming many people other than the specific target. This category would also include chemical weapons, aerosol poisons, and, of course, strong encryption .

20. Scott Says:

Phil Miller #16:

As a computer scientist like yourself, I believe definitions are important. Would you mind posting the definition of ‘assault weapon’ you’re using here?

The way I’d approach a definition would be to start by listing all the legitimate reasons why a civilian might need a gun. Those reasons would probably include skeet-shooting, culling deer when there are too many of them, and making artistic photos like those of Harold Edgerton. Whether self-defense could count as a legitimate reason would depend on circumstances, because of the obvious potential for unending arms races (“I need an Uzi to protect myself against criminals who might have Uzis! I need an ICBM to protect myself against terrorists who might have ICBMs!”).

Then, an “assault weapon” would be defined as any gun that there’s no legitimate reason to own, or for which the legitimate reasons were grossly outweighed by the danger to the public.

What’s mindblowing to me is that this is essentially the standard used to decide (for example) which medicines should be available over-the-counter, which should only be available by prescription, and which shouldn’t be available even then. I.e., is there a legitimate use that outweighs the abuse potential? And there, the FDA and DEA (in my opinion) err too far on the side of too much regulation. Yet when it comes to weapons that can kill dozens of people in a movie theater or temple, rather than medicines that at most harm the person taking them, we don’t demand a legitimate reason for purchase at all.

21. Roger Says:

Scott doesn’t see how the laws of quantum mechanics could allow double slits but not quantum computers, but not (super-Turing) quantum computers. And now he doesn’t see how the 2nd Amendment could allow a semi-auto rifle but not an ICBM nuke.

22. Scott Says:

More generally, it’s noteworthy (though predictable) that most legal theorists on this, as on all issues, find in the constitution the view congenial to their politics. Politicians are even worse. Hardly anyone takes an off-diagonal view – ‘I think guns are horrible, but the founders, in one of their less lucid moments, did give us the right to carry them’ or ‘guns are necessary to guarantee a free state and hold off tyranny, but the feckless founders only afforded this right to militias out of a desire for self-preservation’

In part no doubt this is because of the idolatrous regard for The Founders I saw in so many Americans. But more concretely, probably it’s just because amendments are hard. Still, I thought better might be expected from Scott.

I don’t think you understood me. Nowhere in the post did I claim that Thomas Jefferson would have agreed with me, nor did my argument rely on such a claim in any way. Mr. Jefferson has been dead a considerable long time, and I don’t think it’s possible to know precisely how he would have interpreted the Second Amendment in a world of crowded urban centers, deadly automatic weapons, and nuclear-armed governments that won’t be overthrown by private militias.

What we do know for sure is that Jefferson saw his life’s work as freeing society from “the dead hand of the past,” and that he thought “the earth belongs to the living.” Similarly, I’d say it’s up to us, the living, not to determine the “true intended meaning” of the Second Amendment for the United States of 2012 (which is no better-defined than the smell of a triangle), but rather to decide on a meaning that fits our history and values as well as the reality around us.

That being so, my point was that absolutely no one today reads the Second Amendment as ensuring the right to own nuclear missiles, even though it’s not obvious from the text why they shouldn’t! So, whatever our reasons for that choice, I’d say that the same reasons mean we also don’t need to read the Second Amendment as ensuring any right to own assault weapons.

23. Michael Dixon Says:

I have more material to contribute to this conversation, but I’ll introduce it once discussion evolves a bit more.

To address Scott’s original post: A quick and easy distinction that can be made between ICBMs and assault weapons is the ability to “bear” them (let’s assume for a moment that the Second Amendment protects any weapon that can be hand held).

As for legislating exceptions for sports (regulated of course), I propose three new events for the Summer and Winter Olympics:

Balance ICBM:
http://i.imgur.com/OVt5u.jpg

And Predator Drone Bobsled:
http://i.imgur.com/k0C6O.png

The medicine juxtaposition doesn’t really hold water. Doctors evaluate the suitability of particular medicines to treat known, existing conditions. Guns purchased for self-defense, though, are purchased to deal with potential situations that may arise in the future. There can certainly be some reasonable evaluation of an individual’s suitability to own a gun, as is done in may-issue states, but no one can reliably say, “No, you’ll never be in a position to need that.”

25. Scott Says:

Roger #21:

Scott doesn’t see how the laws of quantum mechanics could allow double slits but not quantum computers, but not (super-Turing) quantum computers. And now he doesn’t see how the 2nd Amendment could allow a semi-auto rifle but not an ICBM nuke.

Absolutely right on both counts!

(Except for one quibble: quantum computers would at most be “super-Turing” in the complexity sense; in the computability sense they’d perfectly obey the Church-Turing thesis.)

26. Scott Says:

Michael Dixon #23: So nuclear weapons would be protected by the Second Amendment, as long as you could carry them in your hands? So then how about the Davy Crockett mini-nuke—legal for strongmen and bodybuilders, illegal for everyone else?

27. Scott Says:

There can certainly be some reasonable evaluation of an individual’s suitability to own a gun … but no one can reliably say, “No, you’ll never be in a position to need that.”

Aha, but I’d say exactly the same about (say) marijuana or LSD! How can a doctor reliably declare that you’ll never need them to deal with personal problems or to stimulate your mathematical creativity?

28. asdf Says:

Gun people I know sometimes answer the “slippery slope” question by saying the 2nd amdt covers the same weapons that the government is willing to deploy against the country’s own civilians. This by most conceptions doesn’t include nukes or artillery or machine guns, but it does include shotguns, semi-auto rifles, handguns with large magazines, etc. (civilian police are issued all of these). The argument is that if they can come after you with it, you should be able to have one too. We’re finding out from the Fox News thing in the UK whether this also applies to wiretaps ;-).

I think the large magazine ban was lifted under Bush a few years ago, but not being a gun person myself I haven’t kept track. The Colorado shooter a couple weeks ago apparently had a 100 round magazine but it jammed, if I remember correctly.

29. Scott Says:

asdf #28: That argument seems pretty nutty, even when considered on its own terms. For if you had such a paranoid worldview, why wouldn’t you think the government would come after you with nukes?

30. Michael Dixon Says:

Scott #26: There’s obviously more to the Second Amendment that invalidates the conclusion that “Ability to Carry Dangerous Things => Constitutionally Protected.” Think of my first response as a separation result for ICBMs and Assault Weapons. For suitcase nukes and alike (frankly, any type of non-defensive bomb), I refer you to the ’09 decision: United States vs. Tagg, which ruled that pipe bombs are not protected under the second amendment. So assuming the reason against the protections of pipe bombs also applies to suitcase nukes, handheld nukes would also not be protected.

Scott #27: Possibly for the same reason a Turing Machine on weed or a doped out quantum computer are still not models of hypercomputation.

31. Giso Says:

The basic question, which is not discussed here although it should be, is whether it is acceptable or indeed wise to use any weapon on any other person at all, even if that person wants to harm me in some way. Only if the answer to that question is yes, then the question of whether I should be able to use an assault weapon, thermonuclear weapon or “merely” a handgun, pocket knife, kitchen knife or my bare fists even arises.

So, is it acceptable and wise to use weapons on other people?

Clearly, every person should be entitled to defend themselves against harm that’s put their way. However, it is already unclear, for what type of harm violent self-defence is an adequate reaction. If someone steals the chocolate bars I have hid away at the office, it’s unacceptable for me to go and hit them until they give them back. If someone steals my wallet, is it OK to stab them? If someone steals my car, is it OK to shoot them? Are evil-doers only “targets”, not worthy to be considered fellow humans? Might there not be a reason behind the actions of my “target”, circumstances that I could help to put right?

Guns allow for harm-at-a-distance, they make the carrier feel being in control. I live in Germany, where no citizen is allowed to own a gun without a special permit. The wise burglar choses the time for break-ins carefully, so as not to be caught by people just happening to wander in on them, because not being able to do harm-at-a-distance makes being caught in the act extremely risky. Burglars want to steals things after all, and not fight hand-to-hand and land themselves in the hospital and consequently in prison.

If some evil gang members on the street demand my wallet, I give it to them and walk away. I would be unwise to try to use any weapon on them because unless I’m a Hollywood action hero-become-real, I’ll have a knife in my gut faster then I can draw my weapon.

When it is hard to lay hands on harm-at-a-distance weapons for law-abiding citizens and criminals alike, the risks involved in fighting are high for both sides as well, and there remain only a few corner cases where violent self-defence is a more adequate reaction than for instance flight, evasion or compliance. Some of them become news from time to time, but they are few and far between.

Oh, and about the argument that you need to be able to defend yourself against an evil government: the American (and German) governments do their evils in more subtle ways than openly oppressing their people. There will be no government thugs knocking at your door. As it is apparent from some of the comments, having you believe they could do it is already enough.

A doctor will conclude that you’ll never need LSD and marijuana because they’re both schedule I drugs with no acceptable, medical value. Of course, that’s merely a politically expedient rule which largely ignores reality and should be reversed rather than emulated.

Another parallel with drugs is the effectiveness of prohibition. Whatever laws exist, I don’t think it would be possible to get guns out of the hands of criminals intent on having them. Hell, Saturday night specials from small, seedy manufacturers have existed for decades, and now with manufacturing technology like 3D printing becoming smaller and more affordable, guns – in one form or another – are here to stay. Given that stark reality, I’d like at least a few of the guns to be in the hands of the good guys (and there aren’t enough police officers to be the only good guys).

If I had a button that, when pushed, made all guns disappear and prevented any new ones from being manufactured, I’d push it. But gun control laws are a very poor substitute for that button in that they disproportionately affect those people willing to follow the law in the first place.

Scott, I happen to agree that constitutional interpretation is something that should take into account changing social context, the views of the international community and the experience of other nations, some sense of how useful an interpretation would be and so on.

I DO think your particular statement of this (Similarly, I’d say it’s up to us, the living, not to determine the “true intended meaning” of the Second Amendment for the United States of 2012 (which is no better-defined than the smell of a triangle), but rather to decide on a meaning that fits our history and values as well as the reality around us.) is rather too extreme and positivistic, and essentially allows for the Supreme Court to behave like a body of wise old men who can decree anything from up on high. And I have no confidence it’s generically going to be “my guys” doing the deciding.

But set that to one side. I did assume you were hoping to make an argument that’s persuasive in general. I tried to give you a decent ‘Turing imitation’ of what an originalist (as opposed to n original intent-ist) would say. You can’t imagine your response would change anyone who doesn’t share your view of constitutional interpretation. Heck, I’d call myself pretty left, and -I- find that view too “roomy”.

I mean particularly this:
the “true intended meaning” of the Second Amendment for the United States of 2012 (which is no better-defined than the smell of a triangle)

This is almost of the Humpty Dumpty school of linguistic interpretation! I’d expect it coming from some pomo type.

35. Lawrence D'Anna Says:

This is particularly terrible argument. It’s so bad that I’m actually quite surprised someone as smart as you would use it.

The private-ownership-of-nukes argument for gun control is structurally identical to the ticking-time-bomb argument for torture:

* first, construe the rule you wish to violate (no torture || right to bear arms) in a very literalistic, absolute way

* construct an extreme hypothetical situation where moral intuition strongly contradicts the rule. (ticking bomb in a school and the terrorist knows where it is, and you know he does || private ownership of nukes)

* therefore the rule should not apply in real-life, non-extreme, non-hypothetical scenarios either

The only thing such hypotheticals prove, as you’ve already correctly pointed out, is that moral and legal rules are not literalistic and absolute. That they depend on a LOT of unspoken context, on real-life tradeoffs, and empirical reality. This is true for any moral debate and saying so really don’t add anything to the specific debate about gun-rights.

You ask: why should a private citizen not be allowed to buy an ICBM?

The answer is obvious. Because (amount of damage an ICBM is capable of) * (chance that private citizen is crazy or evil enough to use it) massively outweighs any conceivable benefits.

Guns are different than ICBMs because the (amount of damage) term is much, much smaller for guns, and the (conceivable benefits) term is much much larger.

Lets talk honestly about what the costs and benefits of gun rights really are. The primary cost is a higher murder and accident rate. The primary benefit is a last-ditch, when-all-else-fails, emergency backup plan in case of tyranny. A tyranny bad enough to require the backup plan may not be very likely, but history is long, and you’re multiplying that probability times the multi-megadeath level catastrophe that the worst tyrannies so far have caused.

Maybe after actually considering the real life tradeoffs, you still come down against gun rights. Maybe you’re even right. But you can’t pretend like the question is easy, and you can’t call it “only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs”. It’s ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE less crazy.

Finally, it’s obligatory that I point out that the 2nd amendment IS part of the constitution, that it was certainly NOT put there for sport-shooting or hunting, and if you care about rule-of-law at all, that ought to count for something.

36. Josephina Says:

And Scott, what’s your take on the right to access instruments of math instruction?

37. Scott Says:

prasad #33: But I think the issue here is not whether you’re a constitutional originalist or a touchy-feely subjectivist. My point was that everyone today, on every side of the debate, reads meaning into the Second Amendment that its writers couldn’t possibly have intended. And the proof is that even the right-wingers consider it “obvious” that, no, of course the Second Amendment doesn’t give you the right to own a nuclear weapon. But why not? What’s the source of that “obviousness”? Despite the right-wingers’ “originalist” pretensions, the idea that we should stop short of a right to bear ICBMs is nowhere to be found in the text. If you programmed a logic-based AI to interpret the Constitution, it might perfectly well find a right to bear ICBMs there. Rather, the source of the right-wingers’ intuition here is common sense: “of course we can’t have private citizens running around with ICBMs! that’s just nutty! and of course we need to read the Constitution in a way that avoids such nutty conclusions!” And this is good! But once we’ve acknowledged that common sense is “in da house,” I see absolutely no reason not to let it go further, and let it explain to us that letting possibly-unhinged private citizens run around with assault weapons is similarly nutty. As far as I can see, you still haven’t answered that argument.

38. Henning Dekant Says:

Scott, clearly your logic shrivels before such an esteemed legal mind as Antontin Scalia. He clearly deconstructs the Founding Fathers intentions and concludes that of course you can have your own nuclear warhead, as long as you can carry it.

Same goes of course for any hypothetical anti-matter, portable black holes etc. weapons of the future. After all every nutjob should have the right to destroy earth.

So enjoy your stay while this planet is still around.

39. ramsey Says:

“For as soon as we’re anywhere on the slippery slope—that is, as soon as it’s conceded that the question hinges, not on absolute rights, but on an actual tradeoffs in actual empirical reality—then the facts make it blindingly obvious that letting possibly-deranged private citizens buy assault weapons is only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs.”

This isn’t at all obvious to me. How many murders in the US are committed using “assault weapons”? Most are using handguns and are committed by professional criminals.

I’m not against common-sense regulations, but I also value freedom, and lots of people want to own and shoot guns. Only a tiny fraction of them commit crimes using those guns, and most of these are people who obtained their guns illegally anyway.

40. Charles Says:

Scott, why do you beat around the bush? Banning all guns except “the bare minimum used for sport-shooting” (and then, regulating tightly) contradicts any reasonable reading of the Second Amendment. You seem to want to repeal it, so why not just say that?

Certainly the Second Amendment was there for a reason, but so was Article 5.

41. Michael Dixon Says:

Henning Dekant #38: United States vs. Tagg decided that pipe bombs are not constitutionally protected under the 2nd Amendment. Surely the properties of a suitcase nuke shouldn’t suddenly allow it to be protected, too? A suitcase nuke or antimatter bomb wouldnt pass the interpretation as observed in the SCOTUS decision in United States vs. Miller, where a protected armament had to benefit the preservation or efficiency of the militia. Since explosives are not typically considered a defensive armament, another argument would have to be made to protect snukes.

A sufficiently large militia can hand carry an ICBM or a cannon. You might object and conjecture that since an individual cannot bear the arm, it should not be protected. On the contrary, it was unclear for a time whether or not the 2nd Amendment even applied to individuals (rather than just militias). This matter was settled in 2008 by SCOTUS in DC vs Heller.

You also failed to pay attention (or consider heavily enough) the example brought up by Justice Scalia concerning banned weaponry in our earliest history that was primarily used to scare people (again, not necessarily protected due to preserve a militia). Given the events of the last century, I see no better example of such a weapon than the nuclear bomb (even if it is handsized).

In addition, an extension to the DC vs Heller ruling in 2010 by the 11th Circuit ruled assault weapon bans constitutional. I can imagine scenarios where a clever lawyer might persuade the SCOTUS to overrule, but that day has yet to come.
As a quick toy example (I find this better than the “overtaking the US from tyranny examples”):

Let’s say, in the future, Michigan were invaded by Canada, but because the military is not required to respond immediately (I am uncertain if this is true or not), an evil executive branch could delay assistance out of spite for voting habits there. Can Michigan residents reasonably protect themselves from technologically advanced forces if they are legally barred from obtaining and bearing assault weapons? Clearly such a militia would need armaments that are superior to what some gun control advocates are suggesting.

42. Scott Says:

Charles #40: Absolutely, yes, I would repeal or rewrite the Second Amendment if given the chance, considering the amount of needless confusion it’s generated. It’s the most notoriously poorly-written amendment ever: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…” Huh? Is that just a decorative preamble? Or is it a constitutive part of the law itself? So that there’s no right to bear arms except for militia purposes? Pretty important distinction!

On the other hand, given the reality that the Second Amendment won’t be repealed, yes, I think it’s pretty important to prevent it from being interpreted so as to support insane conclusions.

43. Michael Dixon Says:

Scott #40: Because an amendment is “confusing” or has stirred up debate is in no way grounds for its repeal. It should not even concern you, since judicial interpretation has developed far beyond that. The SCOTUS decision for DC vs. Heller (http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/07-290.pdf) has 20 pages dedicated to the interpretations of the prefatory and operative clauses of that one sentence. This and other decisions (which are nicely explained and documented on Wikipedia) give plenty of careful and valuable judicial overview to address some of your concerns. The decision do not answer every question or concern, especially since society has not even begun to prepare a legitimate legal challenge to the issues raised.

This constitutional interpretation game is a key component in the document’s flexibility and the function of our government. I have little doubt that the founding fathers were purposefully vague or incomplete to leave future generations the ability to solve additional issues that they did not have answers for. If you look at previous drafts of that line (also on the 2nd Amendment’s Wikipedia page), you will notice that almost all of the earlier drafts were longer and MORE specific. The founders were not stupid. They were cautious and did this for a reason.

44. John Moeller Says:

I’m afraid your argument won’t work in practice Scott. While I agree with it, all it does is draw the line closer to BB guns for people like you and I. All a guns rights activist has to argue is that it’s a matter of degree because that’s where you placed it. At that point it becomes endless bickering over where the line should be drawn legally. (And really, do you think that you’re the first person to argue this? Did you think that this never came up during the first round of talks on assault weapon bans?)

The problem isn’t with assault rifles. Really, it isn’t. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a 9mm pistol. The problem is with GRAs’ assertion that they should be allowed to wield lethal force without any (or with a ludicrous minimum of) training or oversight.

Or how about the fact that people can store firearms irresponsibly without suffering harsh punishment for their negligence? Children die accidentally by firearm discharge frighteningly often, usually from pistols, not assault rifles. When it happens, it’s usually presented as a tragic accident, rather than what it is, an obscene example of gross negligence.

It’s not assault weapons, it’s the blaze attitude toward firearms in general.

45. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

It strikes me as weird in these arguments that both sides seem to accept the second amendment as almost a law of nature, rather than something that can in principle be repealed. I realise that this is extremely hard in practice, but these arguments tend to be about ideals rather than political realities.

Perhaps this is the European in me speaking, but it is not at all clear to me why it is a good idea to have a right to dangerous weapons enshrined in the constitution rather than regulated by law. The argument seems to be entirely centred on the idea of using privately held weapons to stave off a repressive government, but this is sheer apocalyptic fantasy, and if anything possession of firearms only provides a false sense of security in this respect.

46. Scott Says:

John Moeller #44: No, I don’t think I’m the first person to say these things. Yes, I agree that training and oversight are huge issues, almost certainly more important than the types of weapon allowed. (Hence my focus on the question of why someone buying a gun needs the gun, what they intend to do with it.) In Israel, to give one example, almost every 18-year-old is assigned a gun and learns how to use it, but the culture surrounding guns is so different—with so much training, oversight, and sense of responsibility—that “James Holmeses” are a nonexistent phenomenon (of course, there are plenty of other dangers ). Israel provides a case study where the American gun advocates’ vision—of people on the street being armed to the teeth, and of that actually making you more secure rather than less—is realized. But it also illustrates just how great a shift in culture and circumstances is needed before that can happen.

47. John Moeller Says:

(ugh, I meant blase, not blaze)

48. Scott Says:

Joe Fitzsimons #45: I completely agree! (See my comment #42.) Alas, as a practical matter, repealing the Second Amendment is not merely “difficult”; it’s about as likely as George Washington getting replaced by Noam Chomsky on the one-dollar bill. What one can semi-realistically hope for is that the people who interpret the Second Amendment in less ICBMish ways will eventually regain the upper hand. (A very important step toward that would be a non-reactionary majority on the Supreme Court.)

I find it interesting how when terrorists strike, it is the right wing hawks who go into this restrict freedom mode. You’re not allowed to say bad things about the regime; it’s okay to have people’s phones tapped, etc. But it the same people who will thump their chests proclaiming it an American’s right to have whatever weapons they wan.

50. Douglas Knight Says:

Whether a drug requires a prescription is mainly determined by what the drug company thinks will maximize revenue. For example, cetirizine (Zyrtec) is available over the counter, but L-cetirizine, the active ingredient, hence necessarily safer, is available only with prescription. Insurance companies are willing to pay the premium for the newer drug still under patent, while individuals looking at price tags are not.

51. Lucas Says:

As far as I’m aware (though I’d be interested to be proven wrong) there aren’t any private landholders in the US with enough land to conduct a recreational nuclear test. And even if there are, there are significant environmental issues to be considered.

I think you can easily use an assault rifle without harming someone else, and there are relatively few environmental problems to responsible use (eg at a firing range where ammunition is recovered). I tend to agree with your views on assault weapons, but they are genuinely quite different even in kind from nuclear weapons.

Large conventional munitions are more debatable. Eg, I’d bet that a fully loaded B52 could take out a heck of a lot more of NYC than just the twin towers, but could probably be effectively used on private property without hurting others or contaminating groundwater.

52. Sariel Har-Peled Says:

Hmmm. You seem to be assuming rationality. This was always about feelings – from how people feel holding a gun, feeling of safety, and how this feelings plays to their own self image. Facts, rational arguments, statistics, logic are all mighty convincing, but completely irrelevant.

Scott, there’s a difference between allowing for ambiguity and creativity in interpretation and saying that the words in the document (before interpretation by the supremes) have as much meaning as ‘the smell of a triangle.’ I don’t believe in implicit legal compacts between citizens whose terms are -so- amorphous as that. What could it possibly mean to follow/cherish/uphold a document whose words mean nothing-more-than-triangle-smell till the great O’Connor or Kennedy or Robert (notice too that they’re all conservatives; by calling for such schemes in a land formed disproportionately of rightwing types, you do far more harm than good for yourself) dish out ex cathedra Meaning.

>Despite the right-wingers’ “originalist” pretensions, the idea
>that we should stop short of a right to bear ICBMs is
>nowhere to be found in the text.

Like I said in my first, I’m pretty sure they locate it in the meaning of the word ‘arms.’ It seems plausible to analytically continue that word to include guns, questionable as to whether entities that are ‘automatic’ are included, and dubious to include say hand grenades. Crazy as that approach sounds to leave out extent of damage (as opposed to how it works and the localization of damage done) I’m fairly sure that -is- a common view taken by people who don’t see the constitution as conveniently pre-banning everything in the amorphous category of “Bad Things”.

54. Michael Kovarik Says:

This reeks of extrapolation fallacies.

The reasoning behind the second amendment is clear in its historical context. That is, bearing arms is minimally required to resist military oppression. Weapons of mass destruction, unlike assault rifles, does not fit this bill. There does not exist a WMD attack in which a military is the prime target. It’s an act of terrorism (the US nuclear detonation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were terrorist attacks, for example).

Of course, that is just a constitutional argument. In a pragmatic perspective of course assault rifles ought to be banned.

55. AngryParsley Says:

Politics is the mind-killer: http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/

Instead of trying to pull on one end of this policy tug-of-war (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/05/policy_tugowar.html), it’s probably more effective to put your resources into things that will reduce violence without outright banning firearms.

Myself and others subscribe to your blog to learn about quantum computing happenings. I wish I could filter these political posts from my feed reader. They don’t contribute anything and they’re unlikely to change any minds. They mostly serve to annoy and alienate portions of your audience. Please reconsider any future posts of this nature.

56. S.K. Says:

Isn’t it also true that when nations with dubiously responsible or extremist religious leadership attempt to acquire ICBMs, many on the left thump their chests and talk about balance and sovereign rights?

57. Scott Says:

AngryParsley #55: I respectfully submit that “politics is the mind-killer” has itself become a mind-killer. There are lots of issues where progress simply doesn’t seem possible without a victory for one side in a political tug-of-war and a defeat for the other side. And as hard as such a victory might be to imagine today, we know there have been successful examples in the past (e.g., the Civil Rights movement). And notwithstanding Robin’s assertions, I am pretty confident that the side in the gun debate supported by
(1) my own common sense,
(2) almost all academic experts, and
(3) almost all advanced nations on earth besides the US
is the right side. (There are many, many tugs-of-war where I’m not confident which side is right; this simply isn’t one of them!)

So, faced with such a situation, what do you do? I can stew privately, or I can spend 15 minutes writing a post and try to influence a few people on the margins out of the several thousand who read this blog.

(Which actually brings me to the most important reason for posts like this one: writing technical posts takes too much time, for something that doesn’t even “count” as a publication! Writing rants is so much easier. )

58. S.K. Says:

“(Which actually brings me to the most important reason for posts like this one: writing technical posts takes too much time, for something that doesn’t even “count” as a publication! Writing rants is so much easier.)”

One trick for solving this time problem is to think less and rant more when writing technical posts.

59. Scott Says:

JeffE #9: Sorry, I just realized I never responded.

Nothing _logically_ changes if you replace every instance of “private citizen” with “trained soldier”. Should professional infantrymen be issued their own personal thermonuclear weapons (and be trained in their use)? Why not? So then why do we issue our soldiers assault rifles?

I don’t buy this argument at all. The military issues weapons to infantrymen based on whatever the military’s needs are. If, hypothetically, there existed a cheap, compact nuclear weapon that could be used by infantrymen, and that would advance military objectives without too much collateral damage or negative political repercussions, then presumably the military would issue it to infantrymen—and why should it not?

Personal weapons ownership strikes me as a completely different matter, since individuals get to choose their weapons, and (as I stressed before) at no point in the process does anyone in a position of responsibility ever stop and ask, “does this person actually need this weapon? why? what for?” The inability to ask such questions, and to deny weapons based on the answers to them, strikes me as the heart of the problem.

60. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

61. Scott Says:

Joe #60: “Sorry”? You’re one of the few folks here who agrees with me! 😀 (Actually, I suspect the majority of my readers agree with me about gun control but simply aren’t commenting—they’re waiting for something they don’t agree with to pounce.)

62. Henning Dekant Says:

Michael Dixon #41, I am deeply humbled by your insightful comment, that makes clear that Scalia’s musings are indeed as profound as I suspected.

As a current resident of Canada your example gives me a completely new appreciation of your right to bear arms.

Of course the Canadian government is rather tempted to invade Michigan, just to finally get this darn new Ambassador bridge build that we already promised to pay for. Invasion seems to be the only way to get around the bought of state senators who keep voting it down.

Yet, thanks to portable suitcase nukes and the Michigan militia our Canadian government is kept in check. And I for once appreciate that. As heartwarming as a 1812 remembrance invasion would be it’ll mean we’d be stuck with Detroit. And who wants that? We can pay for a bridge, but I fear rebuilding a once great city that has been so badly mismanaged and brought to ruin is beyond out means.

63. Anonymous Says:

While I’m a conservative on most issues I’m actually undecided on the gun-control debate. And to the extent that I have a leaning it’s to think that the liberals are probably right about this one. I understand why we have to apply a sort of fabricated sanctity to the constitution in order to prevent complete anarchy but anyone with common sense knows that the founding fathers could never have imagined where technology would lead us in regard to arms.

Having said that, I’ll offer a couple of thoughts in favor of the right to own firearms. First of all, I’m not convinced that the tragic batman shooting poses a greater argument in favor of gun control than against it. In this case the gunman was clearly deranged and I think we have a right to assume that the vast majority of US citizens (and by extension, the people sitting in the theater if we assume a representative sample) are not deranged to the extent that they would abuse firearms and kill random strangers. That being the case, I think in this instance the NRA may actually have it right, if other people in the theater had guns the crime would not have gotten nearly as far as it did and may not have happened in the first place. But I understand that this argument is subject to the point Scott made about Israel and culture.

Since I know that this argument isn’t so much contested by gun control advocates as it is ridiculed, let me just try to illustrate how this case differs from other scenarios where it’s been applied. I would NOT make this argument in regard to a crime of passion or a killing for monetary gain where the assailant has basic mental health but commits the crime anyway, then the “wild west” stereotype could very well apply. And I certainly wouldn’t make it in regard to school shootings, we’d obviously never entrust children with weapons and a gunman could easily find defenseless children to target if that was his intention. But strictly in the case of a theater shooting I think it may actually favor the argument for more guns rather than fewer.

But more important is the second point which addresses Scott’s argument. The right to bear arms is intended to allow citizens to defend themselves against their government, and there I don’t have a distinction for you, but it also is intended to enable citizens to defend themselves against other citizens without having to rely on the government in situations of peril. (An aside, I was once jumped and the police really took their sweet time getting to scene of the crime.) I may not be able to give well defined guidelines here but at least loosely speaking I think we all understand that nukes will not be employed by one citizen attacking another. Moreover, if they were, nukes on the other side wouldn’t make a difference. If Alice nukes Bob, it’s too late for Bob to do anything and if Bob is aware of the danger ahead of time he isn’t any better equip to defend himself with a nuke than he would be with a gun. (On the other hand, if Alice is coming after Bob with a gun we all recognize that Bob IS much better off with a gun of his own than he would be with a pocketknife.) This is a strong contrast to wars being fought between nations were one nation would still be around to retaliate with their own nukes and as such the nukes serve as a preemptive deterrent. Scott, you speak of an unending race where I might need to “protect myself against terrorists who might have ICBMs” but I think that’s an impossible scenario. No terrorist will come after ME with ICBMs, they’ll come after MY CITY or MY COUNTRY with ICBMs, and in that case it’s an attack on a group and that group’s governing body should be the ones to defend against it. And also, as I said, I don’t think my own ICBMs will do me any good unless I plan on “defending” myself with a preemptive attack which, again, I think has to be left to the government. I guess I’m basically arguing that citizens don’t have a right to defend themselves by means of warfare. And these large scale assault weapons are only suited for war.

So to recap, I don’t have an answer for why I shouldn’t be allowed to have ICBMs to prevent the government from coming after me with their own ICBMs, and I know I haven’t put my argument here into well defined terms, but I think there’s an intuitive distinction which can be made between firearms and WMD when it comes to their usefulness in helping me defend myself as a private citizen in the event of a private attack.

Looking this over I think I may be rephrasing a certain amount of what Lawrence D’Anna said in comment 35. Anyway, thanks for the thought provocation Scott.

64. Scott Says:

Scott, there’s a difference between allowing for ambiguity and creativity in interpretation and saying that the words in the document (before interpretation by the supremes) have as much meaning as ‘the smell of a triangle.’

Just to clarify, I didn’t mean that all written words are as open to interpretation as “the smell of a triangle”, or even all words in the Constitution. My comment was narrowly directed at the words “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…” and their alleged relevance to the world of 2012.

By close analogy, a large fraction of the entire Old Testament consists of commandments related to the temple in Jerusalem. After the Romans destroyed the temple, the rabbis—who, in general, were a pretty conservative crowd, and pretty big believers in the original text’s infallibility!—had no choice but to reinterpret those commandments or else declare them inoperative. (Or rather, dormant until the coming of the Messiah and the building of the Third Temple, etc. etc.) Given that we no longer have “well-regulated militias” in the United States, and that they wouldn’t be militarily relevant even if they did exist, I would advocate doing much the same thing with the Second Amendment.

65. Scott Says:

Michael Dixon #41:

Let’s say, in the future, Michigan were invaded by Canada, but because the military is not required to respond immediately (I am uncertain if this is true or not), an evil executive branch could delay assistance out of spite for voting habits there. Can Michigan residents reasonably protect themselves from technologically advanced forces if they are legally barred from obtaining and bearing assault weapons? Clearly such a militia would need armaments that are superior to what some gun control advocates are suggesting.

I agree with Henning Dekant (#62): this comment illustrates beautifully what I find surreal about the whole gun debate. One side is worried about America’s now semi-regular mass shootings, its rate of gun violence being the highest in the industrialized world, etc. The other side is worried about what happens when the Canadians invade Michigan.

Even in this imagined scenario, it seems to me that better deterrents are available. For example, if the Canadians attacked with maple-syrup bombs, the good people of Michigan could use giant waffles to soak the syrup up. Or if the Canadians charged across the border wielding hockey sticks, the Michiganers could just politely ask them to go home.

66. Henning Dekant Says:

This story is rather timely to illustrate the cultural chasm when it comes to gun culture between the US and Canada.

What should be noted is that it is not hard to come by a permit to carry a gun in Canada. And there are about 10 million personal guns in circulation.

Yet, there seems to be far less obsession with fire arms, and most weapons seem to be registered for hunting purposes (although I know of a friend’s grandma who sleeps with a loaded shut-gun under her bed, so there’s that data point).

Found this interesting site that has some good data.

67. Totient Says:

The way I’d approach a definition would be to start by listing all the legitimate reasons why a civilian might need a gun. Those reasons would probably include skeet-shooting, culling deer when there are too many of them…

These guns are also some of the deadliest possible weapons for a lone mass murderer to use. For a long time (up to Vietnam, and possibly later than that), most military-grade sniper rifles are slightly modified hunting rifles, so even a semi-competent shooter with a deer rifle would be a menace.

Shotguns are also a fair bit deadlier than your typical assault rifle. The reason militaries don’t issue them as their standard weapon is because a shotgun’s range sucks – soldiers need to worry about people shooting back.

The modern assault rifle is not designed as a weapon for an individual; it’s designed for groups of mutually-supporting, well trained teams soldiers. An assault rifle is actually a pretty poor choice if your goal is to kill a lot of people. (Fortunately, people who go on murdering rampages don’t think the tactics through.)

My point is: you can make a pretty good case for banning ALL guns (or at least making all guns very difficult to obtain). There is also a very logical line to be drawn at fully-automatic weapons and grenade/rocket launchers (currently classified as ‘destructive devices and prohibited to the general public) But if you’re going to allow people to have their deer rifles and shotguns, you might as well let them have the ‘assault weapons’ too.

68. Anonymous Says:

Scott, your argument can be used to outlaw practically anything. Should individuals be allowed to own self-aware computers hellbent on destroying humanity? If not, we’d better outlaw general computing! Should individuals be allowed to have private stealth jet bombers? If not, we’d better outlaw cars!

69. AnonBrit Says:

I moved from the UK to quite a small city in the US which none the less ranks in the top ten for murder rate per capita.

My statistics are approximate but since I have been here (one year and two months) students have been held up at gun point on campus four or five times. Further off campus we aren’t sent e-mails but this is quite common. Most people I know, know at least one person who was mugged at gun point.

The other day a woman was kidnapped in the middle of the day from outside a hospital driven to the country and rapped. The news has just reported that someone has been arrested for shooting dead a student in the main off-campus living area. The nightly local news nearly always begins with the murder/shooting roundup. About a week after the Batman shootings, three people were shot in one morning (only one died), the shootings weren’t connected it just happened there were three that day.

Nearly all our students are afraid to walk in the evening, and they are mainly male! While I know people over react one female friend of mine is uncomfortable going out alone at night even in a car. From before I arrived I have heard stories about three hold ups at the same garage in one morning, and of a guy being followed down the centre of the road to his car.

I have no reason to believe that this isn’t just standard for the US. Yes, my city murder rate is high but around campus is the good area and it still isn’t safe. This would definitely be considered abnormal in the UK, and I imagine Canada. I completely understand why people want to own guns to feel safe. However I think gun violence in the US is far more prevalent than many other countries. Certainly the idea that I’d one day live in a place where shootings (of one person) were considered unremarkable isn’t something I could imagine.

Apparently mass shootings happen in the US at just over the rate of one a year. Again I feel this is disproportionately high but I might be wrong.

Now, I am guessing Americans consider this an acceptable cost of the right to bear arms. I’m not the one to pass judgement on what scarifies the right should entail and what is a legitimate sacrifice. I don’t like however the argument that guns increase safety, because I felt far safer in most other countries I have visited. Although in the interests of fairness I’d point out the US isn’t the most dangerous country in the world, just worse than most of Europe, Singapore, China, Japan etc.

70. Scott Says:

Anonymous #68: OK, let’s see. If

(1) there actually were a computer on the market that, with very little skill or training, could be turned into a powerful and murderous AI-robot, and

(2) disturbed individuals were in fact regularly buying that computer and then sending it on murderous rampages, and

(3) the computer had essentially no applications besides the murderous one,

then I think there would indeed be a strong case for outlawing that particular computer, or at least severely restricting its sale.

On the other hand, even if it’s logically possible to convert an ordinary MacBook into an unstoppable killing machine, I’m perfectly comfortable letting people buy that MacBook, as long as one can reasonably predict that they won’t in fact, for the foreseeable future perform the conversion—for example, because neither they nor anyone else knows how to do it.

This illustrates again what I see as the fundamental disconnect in the gun debate. One side is interested in what’s actually observed to happen when you let people buy certain technologies. Yes, it might consider hypothetical scenarios (as in the ICBM example), but only “defensively,” in an attempt to show there’s not a principled obstruction to looking at what’s really happening around us and then applying common sense. The other side is interested pretty much exclusively in hypothetical scenarios—like (from this comment thread alone…) an unchecked Canadian invasion of Michigan, a righteous armed citizens’ uprising against the federal government, or a harmless computer being turned into a murderous AI-robot—and seeks to base real-world policy on the consideration of what would be reasonable in those cases.

Gangs of (English transliteration) “Wasseypur”

Ajit
[E&OE]

72. Jared Says:

“then the facts make it blindingly obvious that letting possibly-deranged private citizens buy assault weapons is only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs”

What??? What does “marginally less” mean to you?

Tell you what, you can live on the best-case planet out of 10,000 where possibly-deranged private citizens can generally buy ICBMs but not assault weapons, and I’ll live on an average-case planet where possibly-deranged private citizens can generally buy assault weapons but not ICBMs, and we’ll see how that works out.

Basically, what Lawrence D’Anna said.

73. Jared Says:

Well, I’m not sure Lawrence D’Anna is correct that the primary benefit of firearm ownership is preventing tyranny, but I strongly agree with him about the quality of your argument.

74. Mike Says:

Jared, I have an idea. How about a planet where possibly-deranged private citizens can’t generally buy assault weapons or ICBMs? This, I think, is what “marginally less” crazy means to people who are marginally less crazy.

75. Scott Says:

Jared #72: Normally, I don’t think people would call Person A a thousand times crazier than Person B, just because Person A’s craziness happened to be a thousand times more destructive. The intent matters too! For example, was Mohammad Atta a thousand times crazier than your garden-variety bus bomber dreaming of 72 virgins, who takes out 2 or 3 innocents with an explosive backpack? No, maybe marginally crazier, but mostly just more effective. It’s in that sense that I meant legalizing ICBMs is only marginally crazier than legalizing assault weapons.

76. Aram Says:

Scott #70, I have discovered the best way to read your blog. Skim the actual post, and then go the very *bottom* of the page, where the best comments are.

77. Silas Barta Says:

Paul Birch sketched out a principled, non-crazy stance on this in The Right to Bear Arms: basically, you have the right to own any weapon you can insure. (A similar position is taken in Robert P. Murphy’s Chaos Theory.)

Of course, to determine how much insurance coverage you need, there has to be a standardized “value of a human life”. Then again, we already do effectively the same thing when setting driver insurance requirements.

Under such a regime, you would probably be allowed to (affordably) own handguns and probably (muzzled) tanks, but not nuclear weapons, considering the number of potential lives the insurer would have to pay out of it went off in the wrong place. So if such a policy ever existed, it would probably require that N scientists/engineers signed off on its design, the insurer held one of the required detonation codes, etc. And even then I imagine it would be expensive.

Likewise, you wouldn’t have to worry about widespread disarming of the population, because non-profits could always step up to provide insurance at a loss to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it (or if insurers somehow conspire to “overestimate” the homicide risk).

78. Silas Barta Says:

@MostlyAPragmatist:

In debates about gun control, one statistic is often overlooked: If you own a handgun, you are more likely to use it to kill yourself than to kill someone else.

I don’t think people “overlook” that, so much as “roll their eyes at the application of broad frequency stats to prediction of something one must *choose* to do”.

79. Jared Says:

Scott #75: Let me quote your whole sentence then, “For as soon as we’re anywhere on the slippery slope—that is, as soon as it’s conceded that the question hinges, not on absolute rights, but on an actual tradeoffs in actual empirical reality—then the facts make it blindingly obvious that letting possibly-deranged private citizens buy assault weapons is only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs.”

I just want to make it clear that we’re not discussing how crazy it is to let absolute rights trump everything else, but rather how crazy a tradeoff in empirical reality must be in to allow either assault weapons or ICBMs. I thus absolutely stand by my belief that the level of craziness of a bad tradeoff depends on how bad the tradeoff is.

Would anyone say that opposing a regulation requiring an 80 mph speed governor on new cars is only marginally less crazy than opposing all regulation of nuclear weapons?

People make tradeoffs where freedom costs lives all the time–I don’t think such an intent is remotely intrinsically crazy such that the magnitude of the cost of the tradeoff doesn’t matter.

80. GASARCH Says:

1) After the Massacre at the theatre showing The Dark Knight Rises there was some progress on making laws that would ban costumes at movie theatres.

2) Scott- You give an excellent argument that there should be a line (Pocket Knives on one side, ICBM’s on the other, but the intermediate value theorem there is some point that makes sense) but not that the law should be Assualt weapons,
which aren’t that well defined. Even so, just to argue that we should be debating where the line is seems to be progress.

3) A great book on these issues is Gunfight: The battle over the right to bear arms by Adam Winkler.
Disclaimer- he’s my cousin.

81. Charles Says:

This might not be something nuclear powers want to hear, but who says states have the right to bear ICBMs?

82. anonymous Says:

Indeed, I like this post

83. ramsey Says:

Economist’s solution:

Tax all guns and ammunition at a rate that will properly account for the average loss of life resulting from the marginal gun or bullet.

For instance, if studies hold that the marginal gun causes 0.001 additional deaths to people other than the gun’s purchaser, and if we take $1 million as the value of a life, we should have a$1,000 gun tax.

Of course, if gun advocates are right that the marginal legal gun saves lives, this implies a gun subsidy!

84. Scott Says:

Silas #77 and ramsey #83: I like your solutions! It’s a shame the gun advocates will probably never agree to them, being as opposed to taxes and mandatory insurance as they are to gun control.

85. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

There are libertarians who favor private ownership of nuclear weapons. That’s not as absurd as it looks.

If you look at the era when only governments could own guns (1350–1650), it was a period of intolerance and authoritarianism all across Eurasia. There were centralized absolute governments in Russia, Turkey, India, China, and Japan. There was no such takover in Europe but there were absolute monarchies everywhere and the Hapsburgs nearly took over. As a result of this. there were the expulsion of Jews from western Europe, the Mogul persecution of the Sikhs, and the Japanese persecution of the Christians. The era 1350–1650 was a terrible period for any dissenting group. I don’t think we want a repeat of that.

As for the conservative wing of the right, Anthony Scalia has suggested that the phrase “and bear” in “the right to keep and bear arms” means that it only applies to handheld weapons.

86. MAssimo Says:

I live in Europe, and in my country it is not forbidden to own a gun, and it is not forbidden even to go around with one, it’s just “very hard” to have one, and you have to explain why, and they’ll search for 2-3 generations if there have been someone with mental problems among you relatives etc. etc.
Furthermore you do not buy bullets with onions at the shop.
So it is not forbidden, just not so easy.
That does not mean at all that thieves do not have guns.
People getting mad will kill their wife with a knife and kill themselves in other sad ways..
But at least you read about massacre of the theatre only on newsmagazine, and you know where it happened before reading.

87. Silas Barta Says:

@Scott #84: I don’t think gun advocates are alone in that: in cases where it would become easier to own a gun, gun opponents would oppose such a regime as well. And people in general don’t like to assign dollar values to human life, or require others to buy liability insurance thereagainst (coverage required for drivers is ridiculously low compared to the value of human life per several metrics).

Does man have the natural, absolute and inalienable right to life? Yes.

Are governments are instituted among men, to secure these rights? Yes.

Hierarchically, what precedes—life or government? Does government have rights? No it does not. And, yes, the concept of life hierarchically precedes that of government. The life of an individual hierarchically precedes the powers of retaliatory use of force that he delegates to a government.

Is death irreversible? No. Is life an either-or proposition? Yes.

Is a government a man-made force, or is it a natural force? Or a divine force? It’s man-made. It’s neither omniscient nor omnipotent nor even just omnipresent—as a physical force-field more or less may be. A government can have its limits as to which all space-times it can be present to secure the rights of every citizen.

In view of the precedence of life and rights, before government, and also the irreversible nature of death, when it comes to the borderline issues, on which side should we lean? We should lean on the safer side: Legally allow men to bear arms.

Does the right to bear arms imply the cessation of the government’s primary mandate of securing the rights of the individual citizens? No it does not. The fact that an individual may lawfully carry arms for his defence at places/time where and when a (proper) government cannot be present, does not mean that a (proper) government thereby ceases to carry its responsibility of protection of life of all its citizens. The right to bear arms does not mean anarchy even in this sense of it all.

At the time of framing of the constitution, and in fact before the invention of the long-range missiles, it could be taken for granted that the physical range of a weapon would be smaller compared to the geographical range of a nation. Thus, the roles of the police and army, of internal and external security, could be easily delineated. Not any longer.

Consider this:

Does man have the right to create and claim private property on other planets? Yes, he does. For instance, mining on moon is a near-future possibility.

Who/what will secure his property rights, say on the moon?

Answer: Of course, his government, primarily, and he himself, with his right to bear arms, secondarily—both being derived from his inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (which remain inalienable even while going to alien worlds).

Now, if there will be some feedback or re-discussion of the issue in light of considerations such as these, it may be possible to contribute towards arriving at a decision.

Just a hint of what can be discussed, before closing:

In a proper government, i.e. 100% laissez-faire, could a single man own 90% of economy, at least for a while? Yes, he can. (Barely 100 years ago, Carnegie owned about 1/3rd of the then US economy, if what I recall is correct. And, US wasn’t 100% laissez-faire even at that time. (Today, Americans compete with us Indians, in terms of wanting to be enslaved.)) Can he have the right bear ICBM? Why? Why not? Can you think of some simple principles or observations to advance your reasoning? [No, this homework will not be graded.]

Ajit
[E&OE]

89. Joel Rice Says:

forget the socalled logic and look at the history. If General Gage was successful, this continent would be a colony. And Gage’s pals would have the guns.

90. Peter Gerdes Says:

Remember the 2nd ammendment talks about a well regulated militia. Thus it provides a natural cut-off as to what weapons are protected: those weapons standardly carried by members of the armed forces. Given that M16s are standard issue this would clearly cover assault weapons. It might even cover handgrenades but won’t cover bazookas, machine guns and the like because they are not standard military issue. Heck, I think there is a much better case for banning handguns than assault rifles.

Now, I tend to think the second amendment is a historical relic of the days in which defense was provided by a citizen militia. However, while it is unrepealed we have to look to it’s stated aims and the implicit purpose for which it was enacted. The second ammendment explicitly mentions the maintenance of a citizen militia. As a militia was understood at the time to consist of citizens armed with military equivalent guns (but not squad or battalion sized arms like cannons or artillery) it doesn’t seem too hard to use this to draw the line today. Heck, it is a lot easier to interpret than the 14th and 15th amendments.

Of course, since we no longer have a national need for a militia and the need for armed revolution against tyranny seems quite diminished (if anything the 2nd amendment would go long before tyranny pushed the populace to armed revolt) I think there are good arguments for the repeal of the 2nd amendment. However, while it is there it is no more difficult to interpret than any other part of the constitution. Even free speech requires line drawing (libel, copyright, publicity rights, harassment, hate speech etc..).

91. Jiav Says:

Private ownership of nuclear weapons will prevent the expulsion of Jews from western Europe, the Mogul persecution of the Sikhs, and the Japanese persecution of the Christians? Too bad. I live in Canada, and in my country it is forbiden to wear a nuclear weapon.

Silas #77 and ramsey #83, could you give us a hint of how much Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should pay in nuclear gun tax? Maybe he too will like your line of thought.

Scott, could you blog something intermediate between this

http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2012/05/04/entangled-in-the-past-experime/

and these

92. Jason Says:

You know you’re in for a treat when a comment begins, “There are libertarians who favor private ownership of nuclear weapons. That’s not as absurd as it looks.”

Actually, it is as absurd as it looks. When libertarians hold this belief, it’s a pretty good sign they’ve allowed their ideology to turn their brain into mush.

93. rationalist Says:

I think that gun control in the USA is a great opportunity for a policy experiment. Simply randomize the 50 states, and in some of them adopt the British policy on guns, which is that virtually all guns are illegal, apart from a few shotguns for farmers and bolt action rifles for sport (both requiring licenses).

In the other 50 states let the NRA have its way. Wait 20 years and measure outcomes.

94. asdf Says:

Just when we thought it was safe:

http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/08/d-wave-quantum-computer-solves-protein-folding-problem.html

95. Ilya Shpitser Says:

I find the gap in argument quality between what Scott would be willing to put in a paper and what he would be willing to use in an argument over a legal/political point stunningly large :(.

96. mailinator.com Says:

That’s a great argument, but it is also missing the point.

Guns make many people feel less afraid. Without guns, many people will want a larger, stronger police force to protect them from others. A large(er) police force would be expensive and irritate everyone.

97. Richard Elwes Says:

Here’s one argument which works for ICBMs but not for assault weaponry: the status quo is that private citizens are allowed one and not the other.

I live in the UK where we have no constitutional right to bear arms, and a good thing too as far as I’m concerned. I would passionately argue against any liberalisation of gun ownership; but if I lived in US would I want those laws repealed? A different starting point means a different question – there is at least an argument that attempting to change and enforce the law would do more harm than good. I don’t know, and I’m glad I don’t have to make that call.

Should private citizens be allowed ICBMs? Obviously not. But now imagine a world where they already have them… again there is an argument that reversing that law would leave law-abiding citizens without ICBMS, and therefore completely at the mercy of the crazies who refuse to give them up – a worse situation than a MAD stand-off. Ok it’s not a killer argument since the overwhelmingly likely outcome is armageddon either way, still it has a little game-theoretic merit, I think.

98. Scott Says:

Ilya #95:

I find the gap in argument quality between what Scott would be willing to put in a paper and what he would be willing to use in an argument over a legal/political point stunningly large

I was going to write, “so then, would you put the counterargument in your comment into a research paper?” But then I realized that you didn’t give a counterargument. So maybe the idea is that, if arguments over legal/political points often fall far short of the standards of math, CS, and physics, then to avoid embarrassing ourselves we should limit ourselves to bare assertions in the former domains?

99. Silas Barta Says:

@ Jason #92: It may be absurd compared to an ideal system you have in mind, but as it stands now, we let people operate driving machines capable of killing while only carrying insurance capable of paying out $30,000 on death, and we let governments carry nuclear weapons with *no* liability insurance policy. Compared to that, it’s relatively sane to let someone own a nuclear weapon if they can ever find someone willing to liability-insure it for something close to a reasonable value of human life (and cover all victims). 100. Ilya Shpitser Says: Scott: “real arguments” on most difficult things, like tradeoffs in making a society, are in fact paper/book sized, not comment sized, or even blog post sized. I am not sure why you were expecting one from me (I am also not an expert on this topic, hence not willing to opine on it). I am not even necessarily disagreeing with you, I just find the quality of the argument quite poor. 101. Scott Says: Ilya #100: On reflection, I admit that writing this post was a mistake—though not for any of the reasons you gave. I don’t agree with you that gun control in the United States is a particularly difficult question (politically intractable, sure, but that’s different). And this is not because I think no policy questions are difficult: some of them certainly are. Rather, it’s because the modern Republican Party has a habit of taking issues that would be matters of consensus in any reasonable society, and making them things that we still have to debate. I also don’t agree that the argument in my post is a bad one—I think it’s fine as far as it goes—nor do I agree with the draconian notion that no one should ever opine on anything unless they’re an expert. (“Daddy, should I drink this rat poison?” “Not being a medical doctor, I’m unwilling to opine.”) It’s relevant, of course, that the people who do write serious books and papers about gun control in the United States usually reach essentially the same conclusion that I did. Were that not the case, I’d be more inclined to think that there must be something wrong with my own simpleminded arguments even if I didn’t see what it was. But the fact that there is an academic consensus on the gun issue supports my view that this is really not a stumper like P vs. NP: rather, it’s a matter of reaching out to people and convincing them to adopt the solutions that are already known. So, having said all that, why do I now admit that writing the post was a mistake? Because even if I’m right, and even if I have all the right in the world to say what I think on my own blog (that’s sort of what blogs are for), it’s now painfully obvious that hardly anyone cares or will be influenced by what I think about this. I was struck, in particular, by how many people seem to have liked my new post about MWI, compared to how many people disliked the gun control post. The “paradox,” from my standpoint, is that both posts were basically just ways to vent and procrastinate! I didn’t think any harder to write the one than to write the other. From now on, perhaps I should simply accept that people enjoy my mindless procrastination about quantum more than my mindless procrastination about politics. 102. Ilya Shpitser Says: “I think it’s fine as far as it goes—nor do I agree with the draconian notion that no one should ever opine on anything unless they’re an expert. (“Daddy, should I drink this rat poison?” “Not being a medical doctor, I’m unwilling to opine.”)” That’s not quite what I said though, I merely said “book-sized” questions deserve book-sized treatment, and if there is no room it’s better to stay silent than to be glib. But then, I am not you :). “It’s relevant, of course, that the people who do write serious books and papers about gun control in the United States usually reach essentially the same conclusion that I did.” I would love to be educated on this if you had references on this (I will send you mail). I suspect though that many papers on gun control address “solvable” empirical questions (e.g. correlation between ownership and accidents), not hard “philosophical/ethical/legal” questions: “how do we trade off public safety/paternalism”, “what is the relationship between government and governed,” etc. It’s not entirely fair to characterize the public discourse on guns in the US as locked down by the GOP/NRA vs the more reasonable state of affairs in e.g. Europe. I think there are more complicated cultural things going on. It really is the case that city-dwelling blue-staters have a different perspective on guns floating around near where they live vs rural red-staters. I don’t think a global policy even necessarily makes sense. The democrats aren’t touching guns for a reason, and I think it’s not just that NRA is a very powerful group (although obviously they are). Groups like the NRA do not function in a cultural vacuum and cannot unilaterally impose a narrative without some sort of broad support. 103. Patrick Says: @Vince: “The assault gun thing is irrelevant because they’re basically never used or owned by civilians. They’re a rather specialized military weapon, fully automatic, short barrel, small caliber rifle, high mag capacity, etc, usually poor accuracy and high fire rate. They never seem to be used in crimes against civilians (I can’t think of one, ever) so making them legal or illegal is pretty meaningless. ” They’re infrequent, but when these sorts of events occur they’re tragic. 104. Justin Dove Says: I haven’t read all the comments, so I won’t promise this hasn’t been said before, but I’ll toss my two cents in: The second amendment, in both traditional and modern interpretations, is primarily concerned with individual self-defense and the self-defense of small, local groups of people. ICBMs are only useful and practical as large scale offensive weapons or extremely large scale defensive weapons. They are completely useless as an individual, or local group, defense weapon. Handguns and rifles however, are extremely effective for such a purpose. That’s the difference. The second amendment is designed to give individuals and small groups of people the ability to defend themselves. It is not designed to protect the country as a whole, or even to manage local crime. We have a military for the former, and police departments for the latter. However, federal court has affirmed again and again that police (and I would wager military as well) have *absolutely no duty to protect individuals*. They have a utilitarian duty as law enforcement, but have no protective duties. There are some fun (i.e. frustrating/irritating) cases to read about where this fact determined the outcome. On a slightly unrelated note, I’m curious to know what you mean by “assault weapons”. You probably mean “assault rifle”. The latter refer to a general class of fully automatic rifles. The former refers to a very specific and fabricated anti-gun definition that applies to semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines and 2 or more features from a list of “evil” features that are entirely harmless and quite stupidly chosen. Any 1 of the features is fine by the standards of these crazed politicians, but 2 of them and it has crossed the line from a sporting/defense rifle to a “aiming not needed, spraying, killing machine”. This topic is a monster in and of itself that I won’t rant about here. But needless to say its a topic chock full of misinformation, stupidity, power trips, and stupid quotes from politicians. The topic of whether or not the 2A does/should apply to *fully* auto weapons is a very interesting and subtle one. I’m not sure where I stand on it. But it is of no practical concern to most casual 2A arguments, as full auto weapons are extremely difficult to legally own. Federal laws are such that you can only own guns or sears that were registered before 1986. Such guns cost$10K+ due to limited availability. After obtaining one, you need to buy a \$200 federal tax stamp and you’d have to hope you live in a state and town that allows you to own automatic weapons. Some localities additionally require very specific and difficult to obtain licenses.

105. Justin Dove Says:

Also, I’d be careful saying that most educated authors on gun control reach the same conclusion that you do. I won’t say whether or not you’re right or wrong, because I don’t know the field well enough. But, there are *many* very well educated 2A scholars and authors that both (1) do not reach your conclusion, and (2) provide some very interesting insight on the history and function of the 2A.

This is also not taking into consideration accusations of political bias in the education community, particularly regarding the 2A. Hot button issues like this are breeding grounds for kool-aid manufacturers.

106. Hans Says:

“The population needs to have weapons that allow it to resist an oppressive government.” That reason suggests that knives and guns are necessary, but nuclear weapons are not necessary.

107. Lou Scheffer Says:

From D’Anna #35,

“The primary cost is a higher murder and accident rate. The primary benefit is a last-ditch, when-all-else-fails, emergency backup plan in case of tyranny. A tyranny bad enough to require the backup plan may not be very likely, but history is long, and you’re multiplying that probability times the multi-megadeath level catastrophe that the worst tyrannies so far have caused.”

You can make some guesses as to these numbers. Let’s consider per thousand years. The USA has roughly 12K gun deaths per year, so the cost of no gun control is about 12M people/1000 years. On the other hand, when governments go berserk historically they kill up to 10% of their citizens (about 30M for the USA). This needs to be multiplied by the probability that citizen gun ownership will help in this case to get the savings in lives. Assuming this to be 50%, then the benefit of no gun control is 15M people per government berserkness.

So the costs are roughly equal when the government goes berserk every thousand years. Averaged over all governments this seems not a bad guess, but democracies seem to do better (through fewer famines and fewer wars, if nothing else).

Presumably a historian (not me) could figure some numbers on this. How often does a country that was once a democracy turn on its own citizens? Presumably this number goes down the longer the democracy is stable. This experimental data was not available to the constitutional framers, when only a few country-centuries of democracies existed. I suspect they were right to be concerned, but we are now over-paying to prevent this particular risk.

108. I. J. Kennedy Says:

Scott,

Don’t fret about writing this post. There are many of us out here that appreciate hearing the internal arguments of serious intellects, even if they are about divisive political issues. For others, politics is religion, and no bit of reasoning is going to have any effect. Most often these are the most vocal. Keep up the good work.