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January 29, 2013

How Michael Shermer failed to think critically about gun prohibition

In this Dispatch…

  • How Michael Shermer made multiple thinking mistakes when he advocated gun prohibition.
  • How gun prohibition is like drug prohibition and why both must fail.
  • How statists, left or right, suffer from mutual self-contradictions.
  • How to react to conflicting evidence by competing studies.
  • Why empirical studies cannot falsify moral principles.
  • How clarity results from applying the same moral principle to both sides of the “gun controversy.”

Michael Shermer promotes critical thinking as the publisher of Skeptic. I normally admire his work, but his recent column, advocating new gun regulations, suffers from multiple thinking mistakes.

Shermer's main error is a whopper. He assumes that politicians can effectively prohibit large capacity magazines and so-called assault rifles. But he does not test this assumption, as critical thinking requires.

This mistake is doubly strange given that Shermer is a self-professed libertarian. Most libertarians understand that prohibitions merely raise prices without extinguishing either supply or demand. For instance…

High black market drug prices mainly reduce demand among the law abiding, but they don't curtail demand among committed users, addicts, and habitual criminals. The same applies to guns…

A person willing to lose his life so he can murder others won't be intimidated by the need to buy high-capacity magazines from the black market.

If mass killings were merely impulse crimes then prohibitionist regulations might have some tiny effect, but we have too much evidence that these lunatics often plan their crimes in a highly organized way. For example . . . .

  • The infamous Texas Tower killer prepared carefully. He even had the foresight to leave a note asking that his brain be examined after his death.
  • The Colorado theater murderer was even more organized. He designed and deployed several layers of defense and offense to ensure that he could cause maximum carnage.

Neither of these killers would have been thwarted by prohibitionist schemes. Both would have been able to buy black market versions of every weapon they used.  

But here's the final nail in the prohibitionist coffin . . .

We can't keep either drugs or weapons out of our prisons, and so – to speak in terms Shermer will easily recognize – the prohibition hypothesis is instantly falsified.

These points are so obvious that everyone admits their truth to some extent . . .

  • Left-statists (so-called liberals and progressives) argue that drug prohibition can't work.
  • Right-statists (so-called conservatives) argue that gun prohibition is impossible.  

But both groups ignore the logic of their positions when it serves their bias.    

Michael Shermer is America's popular expert on such thinking errors, so why did he forget to apply what he knows in this case?

I think Shermer was seduced by a fragile form of empiricism. He thought he had convincing evidence to prove a point, and so he sat down to write — on a deadline — without stopping to identify and test the assumptions involved.

What was the evidence that seduced him, and why is it fragile?

Shermer’s argument rests largely on a 1988 study asserting that every defensive use of a gun is counterbalanced by 4 unintentional shootings, 7 criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed homicides. Thus, there are 22 bad uses of guns for every good use.

Those numbers look bad for gun ownership, but the analysis is hyper-simplistic . . .

  • The defensive use of guns can fall as gun ownership grows if encounters with armed citizens cause criminals to make fewer attempts.
  • Gun accidents and completed murders (especially among family members) could even rise under such a scenario, even though the total amount of crime was falling.

Now turn it around and imagine what could happen if you enact strong gun prohibition.

  • Most law abiding families surrender their guns.
  • Accidents and intra-family murders using guns plummet, but family murders using knives and clubs soar, along with cases of armed home invasion.
  • The overall murder and crime rates remain the same or rise.

Meanwhile, moral conflicts like the following happen . . .

One law abiding family gives up its guns. The husband then has to sit and watch while an armed intruder rapes his wife.  

In another household a mother decides to violate the gun prohibition laws. She keeps her gun. When she discovers an intruder raping her young daughter she shoots the rapist in the head. She then faces criminal charges for killing someone using an illegal gun.

Meanwhile, in another town a lunatic enters an elementary school with a homemade flamethrower and begins spraying the children with sticky burning napalm. The flaming spray reaches more children than even a machine gun could.

Has gun prohibition improved the world?

These possibilities show why all empiricism in the social sciences is fragile. You can't really conduct controlled experiments on a whole society, so it’s difficult to untangle cause and effect. Even worse . . .

You can't reliably predict what will result from the changes you make.

This fragility also applies to studies that favor gun ownership, not just studies that oppose it. That’s why I'm reducing my own use of findings such as the following . . .

  • A 1997 National Institute of Justice study showed that guns are used defensively more than 2 million times per year.
  • A similar 1995 study by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz put the annual count for defensive use at 2.5 million.

These studies could be correct. They may even be superior to Shermer’s study. The size of the numbers they report certainly swamps Shermer’s numbers. But I think these studies are also fragile, just like Shermer's. Most importantly . . .

I don’t want to be coerced either to own or not own a gun just because I seem to have lost a battle of empirical studies. Nor do I want to impose my preference on others just because the available empiricism seems to favor me. We must recognize that…

Moral principles cannot be falsified by empiricism.

Instead, these principles are self-evident, logical constructs. One such principle is the presumption of innocence. If you harm the innocent in the name of controlling the guilty you have multiplied the number of victims.

It should be obvious how this applies to gun prohibition. It is morally wrong to remove…

  • the gun from the hand of the innocent woman who saves her daughter from a rapist.
  • so-called assault rifles from the innocent shop owners who used them to protect themselves during the L.A. riots.
  • high capacity magazines from the innocent elderly woman with shaky hands who doesn’t want to rely on careful aim when she resists a home invader.

Thus, gun prohibition is both immoral and impractical. But…

For those who remain seduced by the siren call of statist coercion, perhaps it will help to turn the issue around…  

We also shouldn't use state violence to make people OWN guns just because some empirical study claims it will reduce crime.

Please don't miss the point. If empirical studies can justify using state violence to prohibit people from owning guns, they can also justify requiring people to own guns.  

This is what happens when you abide by The Golden Rule of Ideas, applying the same criteria to two competing ideas.

Here are the take-away points as I see them…

  • Be skeptical of empiricism in the social sciences. It's fragile.
  • Embrace robust moral principles instead.
  • Constantly employ the Golden Rule of Ideas – judge your own ideas the same way you judge competing concepts.

Where does this leave us?

It leaves us with freedom and diversity.

  • If you think owning a high capacity magazine could give you extra chances to take down a well defended killer like the Colorado theater murderer, then buy a gun that uses such magazines (as I plan to when my budget permits).
  • If owning a high capacity gun offends you then try something else. But make sure it's something peaceful. Don’t use politics and state violence to impose your preferences on others. Elevate persuasion above coercion.

As for Michael Shermer… I think he does important work. Among other things he argues strongly that we must hold our views provisionally, until evidence or logic overturns them. I hope he will find my criticisms a useful example of both critical thinking and the importance of provisionality.

— END —

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