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Gun Rights: A Guide for Kids
Teach your kids to be more reasonable and just than the adults on TV
I’m a parent of four, and I oppose gun control. Whenever there’s a tragic school shooting in the news, activists loudly call for more restrictions on guns. Many plainly want to just ban guns. Even when they explicitly deny this goal, activists’ arguments normally imply the desirability of a ban. If you’re a kid, it’s only natural to ask, “Why not ban guns?”
Here’s what I tell my kids when they ask.
When tragedy strikes, most human beings have a passionate emotional reaction: “We have to do something about this!” Though this is only natural - indeed, because this is only natural - we have a strong moral duty to delay action until we are ready to think carefully and calmly. Otherwise, we risk doing great evil. You shouldn’t even drive when you’re upset, much less pass legislation. In 2001, for example, the U.S. experienced a tragic terrorist attack - and responded by invading two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died as a result, and twenty-two years later, it is unclear what the payoff is even supposed to be. Why did Americans do this? Because they acted on their grief and rage, instead of thinking carefully and calmly.
If we think carefully and calmly, what do we learn about guns and violence? In 2021, guns were used to commit about 21,000 out of 26,000 U.S. homicides. One year earlier, 32% of American adults surveyed owned guns. That’s over 80 million people - or about one gun murder per 4000 gun owners. The implication is clear: The overwhelming majority of gun owners are totally harmless. When a black man murders someone, we don’t punish all blacks. Instead, we try to punish the guilty - and leave the innocent in peace. Why shouldn’t we show gun owners the same consideration? Why should we scapegoat millions for the crimes of a few monsters?
You could reply, “Sure, banning guns is unfair to the vast majority of gun owners. But the gains of banning guns are so massive that we should do it anyway.” This is a tempting conclusion when you first hear the murder statistics. If we could stop 21,000 murders a year by mistreating eighty million innocent gun owners, maybe that would be justified. Maybe.
In the real world, however, passing a law saying, “Guns are banned” does not make all guns vanish. Plenty of gun owners will keep their guns despite the law. Furthermore, some would-be gun murderers will give up their guns and kill with other weapons instead. Researchers have tried to estimate the fraction of murders a gun ban would actually prevent, but the best place to start is common sense. Do you honestly think that even a 50% reduction is likely?
Even anti-gun activists know that lots of people will break the laws they pass. After all, they already managed to get strict gun control in the nation’s murder capitals… and those cities are still the nation’s murder capitals. How is this possible? Because people who break laws against murder are also prone to break laws against gun ownership. Activists’ hope is that if they expand strict gun control to the entire country, guns will stop flowing from low-regulation areas to high-regulation areas - and the laws they love will finally start working well. Maybe they’re right, but you’d think they’d be severely disappointed by the flimsy payoff of the laws they’ve already managed to pass.
On reflection, gun bans conceivably increase gun homicides. “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” is a long-standing pro-gun slogan - and as slogans go, few are more insightful. Self-defense is a major motive for gun ownership. Many Americans live in high crime areas, and guns help them protect themselves. Though few guns are ever used to stop a crime, every gun is an insurance policy: If a bad guy shows up, you can scare him, and you can shoot him.
Furthermore, the knowledge that lots of American households own guns is plainly a serious deterrent to all sorts of crime. Since criminals rarely know if a potential victim owns a gun, the guns your neighbors own indirectly protect you, too. This is not mere ideology: If you were tempted to break into someone’s house, wouldn’t you wonder, “Gee, what if they own a gun?”
The other major motive for gun ownership is recreational: Outside of big cities, target-shooting and hunting are big hobbies. Sure, you can cavalierly tell them, “Get another hobby,” but why should they have to? We don’t talk about banning swimming pools every time a child tragically drowns in a swimming pool. We don’t talk about banning recreational driving every time a family tragically perishes on a road trip. Yes, you can say, “If the number of deaths averted is massive enough, then a ban is justified despite the unfairness to innocent hobbyists.” But activists almost never even tell us the cutoff, much less share strong evidence that we’re over the cutoff.
Some countries, such as Japan, have almost no guns and almost no murders. It’s tempting to think that the U.S. could mimic them, but that’s absurdly optimistic. Look at this table of per-capita gun ownership by country, and compare it to this table of murder rates by country. On the guns table, the U.S. is #1. On the murder table, the U.S. is #61. Canada is #7 in guns, and #114 in murders. Jamaica is #92 in guns, and #2 in murders. This doesn’t prove that gun control has zero effect, but it does show that guns are, at most, one risk factor among a great many.
Some defenders of gun rights seem to go crazy over seemingly trivial regulations. What’s the big deal if you have to wait a week to buy a gun? By itself, the answer is plainly, “Yea, it’s not a big deal.” But what if this waiting period is part of a larger plan to gradually ban guns step-by-step? Then it’s hardly crazy to just draw a line in the sand and stonewall “not one step further.”
Is there a larger plan to gradually ban guns? Yes. Anti-gun activists’ long-run goal is plainly a ban or near-ban. This is no conspiracy theory. Just listen to what they say and watch what they do. Opponents’ “model countries” - such as Japan - almost totally ban guns. And when anti-gun forces get the upper hand in a city or state, they come about as close to a ban as the Supreme Court tolerates. They virtually never criticize any government on Earth for excessive gun regulation.
Should individuals be allowed to own a machine gun? Anti-tank missiles? Nuclear weapons? I’m not an absolutist here. Hardly anyone is. If everyone who wants a weapon wants it for evil purposes, there’s nothing wrong with banning it. If some people who want a weapon are harmless, and others aren’t, though, you should weigh lives saved by the ban against the mistreatment of the innocent. As you ponder these issues, make an effort to ignore angry activists who pretend that innocent enthusiasts don’t exist or don’t count. They exist and they count.
In a well-functioning society, media and politicians would try to calm popular reactions to tragedies. But in the real-world, media and politicians generally do the opposite. When the public is angry, they try to make them angrier. Why? Sometimes this is merely because the media and politicians, like other humans, respond emotionally. But most are probably consciously fueling popular emotions to make more money and gain more power. Either way, these demagogues deserve neither your trust nor your respect.
Contrary to the fear-mongering of the media and politicians, children are almost never murdered in the United States. By anyone. In any place. In any manner. For any reason. If you look at the 2018 numbers, for instance, you’ll see that under 700 children ages 0-14 were murdered in the entire country, out of a total child population of about 60 million. Murder is not a danger kids should fret over. Adults who say otherwise are bad at math, and you should ignore them.
If listening to me has made you angrier about this issue, I have failed. My goal, to repeat, is to help you think carefully and calmly in the face of tragedy. I’d do better if I could, but I don’t know how.
In case you’re wondering, I have never fired a gun. I am not emotional about this issue. If you want to understand the science and ethics of gun regulation, you shouldn’t be emotional either.