Douthat’s Theory

Ross Douthat:

But no matter how tight a connection one draws between a gun culture and a high murder rate, gun ownership is not an intrinsic evil: Most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, most guns are never used to kill, and the tragedies associated with the Second Amendment are exceptions to a liberty that’s mostly exercised with restraint, discretion and an appropriate level of caution. The intrinsic evil that we’re concerned with here is murder, not gun ownership — and that means, in turn, that we are not morally required to embrace doomed-seeming crusades to limit gun right when other paths to a lower murder rate are available….

A generation ago, for instance, there was a lot of skepticism among researchers that the size of police forces had an impact on the crime rate. Today, however, most of the evidence suggests that more cops does, in fact, equal less crime, and that a nation with more police would have safer streets and fewer murders. (Here’s a good recent summary of the research from Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok, who argues that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to seek to double the number of active-duty cops in the United States.)

True, such a nation might not have fewer spree killers — but then we should be doubtful of any policy proposal that promises to prevent events that are by definition unique, unpredictable and irreducibly complex….

Now obviously a push to hire more cops, no less than a new push for gun control, would run into political opposition in our age of tight budgets and public-sector layoffs. But shifting state budgets from incarceration to enforcement makes long term fiscal sense, and between the Republican Party’s affinity for cops and firefighters and the Democratic Party’s affinity for aid to state and local governments, it’s arguably easier to imagine a post-Newtown coalition forming around, say, a new version of Bill Clinton’s COPS program — which was mainly criticized after its expiration, as I recall, for subsidizing too many extra cops in sleepy small towns — than around a return to his ineffective gun control efforts. And based on the public policy record of the last twenty years or so, it’s much easier to imagine such an effort actually making a difference on the ground.

“Surely, we can do better than this,” President Obama said last night in Newtown. His speech was eloquent, moving, and absolutely right. But there’s more than one way to do better by our children, and hiring more cops seems like a far, far better use of our political energy than a probably-futile war on guns.

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  • Kyle J

    Or you could do both. Imagine if the country spent even 25% of what it’s spent combating terrorism on reducing murders, which are of course a much bigger problem numerically speaking.

  • phil_style

    l: Most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, most guns are never used to kill

    This is true. But the same can be said for car drivers. Most cars are never used to kill, and most car owners probably try to abide by the law.
    However, that doesn’t stop us from having hundreds of rules and regulations with respect to cars. Cars must be licensed, insured, operated according to very demanding rule sets. Car use can be taken away from an individual and must be earned by demonstrating a certain level of competency and safe operating procedures. Some certain types of cars are banned (e.g. Those which don’t meet the general safety requirements.)

  • Rick

    Phil #2-

    The difference is that driving is not spelled out as a Constitutional right (although their may have been a related ruling on that). Also, if I am not mistaken, the regulations are for driving on the road. If you just kept your car on your property (say for example, a farm), would you still have to abide by those regulations? I don’t think so.

  • Luke Allison

    I think we also need to include the mental health question in this conversation. Reading the comments after a few articles on this subject, I’m seeing people who are trapped and hopeless with adult family members who refuse to seek help and are dangers to themselves and others. It seems as if the system is failing them.

    A tactical weapon designed to turn anyone who so desires into a killing machine (that’s what assault weapons are…easy to operate combat multipliers designed to create grievous injuries and take as many people out of the battle as possible) should never be allowed anywhere near someone with the myriad of issues that Adam Lanza apparently had. And probably not anywhere near anyone with mental instability (history of depression, suicidal thoughts, etc.) These are all factors we need to discuss.

  • Edem Morny

    @Luke Allison

    Such guns shouldn’t even be allowed near to sane people who are not soldiers going to war. Why does the average Joe need to own assault rifles, when they can even mistakingly cause so much harm?

  • Steve Sherwood

    I would like folks who make arguments like this, that there’s not really a co-relation between our gun culture and gun related deaths to explain why we have exponentially (shockingly so) higher death by gun rates than the countries of Europe and Canada. Is it just that our mental health system is that much more deficient? That seems unlikely to me.

  • phil_style

    @Rick, Well I personally have no regard for your constitution and besides, the houses could just amend it anyway. I would never swear any kind of allegiance to it. So let’s jump over that for a minute.

    We can always find a way to distinguish one comparison from another. So yes, vehicle-owner laws apply to the road… BUT they also apply to the manufacture and import of all vehicles too. So you regulate their type at the points of manufacture too.

    And besides, good weapons controls can be put in place for just the public space. The car analogy works just as well still for me.

  • Rick

    Phil #7-

    “I personally have no regard for your constitution and besides, the houses could just amend it anyway. I would never swear any kind of allegiance to it. So let’s jump over that for a minute.”

    Because this is a U.S. issue, the issue of the Constitution can’t be jumped over. Our laws are based on it, and it is very difficult to amend.

    That being said, regulations in the public space is a reasonable approach.

  • Dale Cole

    “Assault Weapon” is an invented term that describes a series of cosmetic features that do not impact the performance or lethality of the firearm. At best, features like a pistol grip, flash hider or adjustable stock are ergonomic and do nothing to make them more a weapon of war.

    As for policy indicatives:
    1) More police and better training for them. Use of volunteer programs to reduce the need for police to perform functions like road-side assistance and traffic control – have them focus on law enforcement.
    2) As far as mental health I don’t think the problem is access. Lot’s of counseling research indicates that most people don’t willing seek to enter mental health treatment, they go because they are compelled by loved ones, work, or the law. So you’re really looking for some way to encourage or compel people to get their mental health dipstick checked before they start running afoul of the law. Almost any proposal would be considered highly-invasive.
    3) Overall our criminal justice system probably needs to be better structured to truly rehabilitation and reintegrate offenders as opposed to warehousing them for a determined time and releasing them to repeat their offenses (most gun deaths are caused by some kind of repeat offender).
    4) Something to repair our respect for basic values, encourage the formation of strong two-parent families (which research has shown produce vastly superior outcome for their children), and combat a growing number of youth I see with no motivations, no ambitions, no values of attachments, that feed substance abuse, gang activity and general societal drag. I don’t know what that is, but if you can figure out you deserve a cookie.

  • EricG

    Rick – the Second Amendment isn’t absolute any more than the First Amendment or others. Each has its own exceptions, but the modest proposals being discussed would likely each easily pass constitutional muster.

  • Rick

    EricG #10-

    I totally agree. I was simply pointing out that the Constitution is an important part of the overall gun discussion.

  • Craig

    Yes, let’s forget about caring for the mentally ill and invest in guns, cops, prisons, border walls, and the military instead. If only Jesus packed a Glock and his disciples carried AR-15s.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I just don’t get Evangelicals arguing for people’s right to arm themselves with assault weapons. Is there any limit people see to what kind of deadly weapons people could posses under the right to arm themselves? And if so, wheat are the boundaries and lines?

  • metanoia

    “Today, however, most of the evidence suggests that more cops does, in fact, equal less crime, and that a nation with more police would have safer streets and fewer murders.”

    A cursery glance at the FBI Bureau of Crime statistics for 2011 would beg us to do the math:
    Los Angeles, population 3.8 million, 9300 police officers, 7.6 violent crimes per 100,000
    Chicago, population pop. 2.7 million, 13,500 police officers, 15.2 violent crimes per 100,000
    New York City, pop. 8.2 million, 35,000 police officer, 20.7 violent crimes per 100,000.

    I fail to see the correlation, as each of these cities, prior to the increase in their respective police forces, had respectively similar violent crime rates before increasing their forces as after.

    A continued growing of the police forces may make a resident “feel” safer, but they don’t seem to actually be safer. Adding more police officers is in a sense a soft imposition of martial law which can only lead to arresting, suspension, or elimination of personal rights. And don’t ever forget, that when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

  • Where would we use the police. At least one in each school and selected public buildings? This is the only increased police presence that seems logical to me?
    If, over several decades, we ban semi and automatic weapons, could we reduce the fastination with the use of these weapons?

  • Joshua Wooden

    I wish that Ross Douthat’s opinions were reflective of the Republican party in general. Coming from a strongly conservative family, though, I know that’s not the case. I have some minor disagreements (I feel like the choice between fewer guns and more cops is a false either/or. Why not a both/and?), but he has a certain quality that most conservatives I personally know don’t share: he’s sane. He’s willing to make concessions, and actually listening to other peoples’ arguments before disagreeing make his arguments more nuanced.

    Still – why is something as simple as banning assault rifles such a divisive issue when all other modern countries have done it (and they have fewer gun-related casualties INCLUDING gun sprees). These countries listen to the same music as we do, so it’s not goth/scream-o music (which is what they blamed the Columbine incident on in ’97). They also play the same or more violent video games (like Japan), so it can’t be chalked up to exposure to violent imagery (they also watch the same movies as us).

    The issues are complex, but Douthat is wrong to say that they are irreducibly complex. And they’re not unique either – there are common denominators linking these attacks. It is possible to isolate certain variables and allow the evidence to determine our policy.

    These shooters are all men. They all have weapons that they own legally. They all have psychological issues, like depression caused by neglect, being left out, getting laid off, etc.

    But once again, we are faced with the reality that depressed men who have been rejected or laid off exist in every modern country, and while they also have murders and even shooting sprees, they happen with much less frequency. What they don’t have that we do? Guns.

    So far, the only thing making this issue irreducibly complex is the constant stream of mis-information coming from lobbying organizations like the NRA and the FoxNews network.

  • Joshua Wooden

    @ Dale Cole, when you said, “‘Assault Weapon’ is an invented term that describes a series of cosmetic features that do not impact the performance or lethality of the firearm. At best, features like a pistol grip, flash hider or adjustable stock are ergonomic and do nothing to make them more a weapon of war.”

    Something sounded wrong about that, so I asked my brothers (who are both against gun control for what it’s worth), who are Marines.

    I asked both of them separately, and they both think this is false. One said, “False. An automatic weapon has been mechanically enhanced to allow max rounds to penetrate into the kill zone.” The other one said, “False… An assault weapon is any weapon with a high capacity mag and high caliber.” (He didn’t define what constitutes “high capacity” and “high caliber,” though).

  • Ian Thomason

    Hi, Dale.

    I’m a member of my country’s Army and I can assure you that what makes a firearm an assault weapon has nothing to do with ‘cosmetic’ issues. To the contrary, points of identification include: high rates of fire, large magazine capacities, field maintainability, battlefield ergonomics, field reliability, combat portability, and modularity (e.g. the capacity to attach of ancillary combat systems).

    Let’s consider the issue of home defence for a moment. The M4 (apparently one of the most popular choices in the US civilian rifle market) fires the NATO SS109 5.56mm round. The SS109 has an effective range of 600m. What homeowner needs a weapon for personal defence that will punch holes through (bricks and) humans out to 600m?! It’s not only a question of overkill, it’s downright risky to everyone else living within the lethal radius of the so-armed. A far better, more effective, less risky solution would be a double-barrelled shotgun loaded with bird shot. Still, a shotgun isn’t as ‘sexy’ as an M4, is it? Why look like a duck shooter when you can look like a SEAL instead? 😉

    God bless,


  • Luke Allison

    Dale #9

    Where in the world did you get that little bit of misinformation?
    Basically, what Ian and Joshua said. I’m a former soldier, and I’ve fired an M16 and M4s endless times. They don’t have significant recoil and their sighting system is highly effective. Anyone could pick one up and learn to shoot it at close range targets very quickly. That’s the point! That’s why physically inept young men like the ones who do these types of shooting are so damn effective. They’re using a weapon that literally anyone can be deadly with. The sheer magnitude of the damage in this particular shooting comes from having high ammo capacity, close range, and zero resistance. The whole point of the 5.56 mm NATO round is that it “yaws” in human tissue and creates absolutely devastating wounding patterns. The point of an assault rifle is that there’s no such thing as a “minor” wound. Getting hit anywhere is debilitating.

    The horror of this particular shooting needs to be repeated over and over again.

  • Diane

    A clear and sensible article on gun control. It separates the problem of evil from gun control and says that while gun control won’t solve the problem of evil, it will save lives. It points out that even low barriers to crime are very effective at reducing crime–for example, in New York City– because most crime is, in part, opportunistic.

  • Jag

    I am not sure in the discussion who is a US citizen, but in the US the NRA and pro-gun lobby have repeatedly defined an “assault rifle” around the sole criteria of being full auto.

    This essentially places any semi-auto AR15 or AK or SKS or what have you outside the assault rifle category and provides a basis for the argument that these weapons are just hunting rifles that look different.

    This in turn means that efforts to outlaw those firearms are at best useless or at worst ran attack on true hunting rifles and shotguns. It is a superb study in the power of using the way we define a word as a policy tool.

  • Jag

    “ran attack” = “an attack.” Sorry!

  • Joshua Wooden


    Thanks, but frankly, I don’t really see why I should care how the NRA defines “assault rifle.” I disagree with their definition, just like I disagree with pretty much everything else that they say.

    Most people outside of gun-nutville would categorize an AR-15 as an assault rifle on the basis that it is a modified version of the M-16 – it is usually a high caliber weapon firing a large size ammunition. Of course, it depends, since it can fire over ten different calibers and bullet sizes. It could only be a .22, but it usually fires 5.56mm. A basic google search will show that most classify the AR-15 as an assault rifle.

    I’m an American, so you know.

  • Marshall

    “…more cops…”

    Depends on what those cops are doing, doesn’t it? Doubling the size of the SWAT team probably isn’t going to help. Maybe they could double as child care providers? Something useful.