So anyway, those guns, Professor Spafford…

The hours after the Giffords shooting in Arizona were hardly the media’s finest hour; Giffords was declared to have been declared dead at the scene, then realised not to be. I was in the US at the time, and saw the news come up on my Twitter feed. Personally I found the story hugely upsetting; that someone can walk up to a stranger in broad daylight and fire a gun into their head from close range is awful enough; the fact that the victim was someone whose job is to be answerable and accessible to the public only made it worse. Add to that the other deaths that day, and I couldn’t bear it.

Predictably, this quickly turned into a “gun control – should there be some?” debate in some parts of Twitter. Being someone who finds the occasional spirited debate something not to be shied from, I found myself in a Twitter debate with Gene Spafford, who had posed the question: sure, guns kill people, but are they more evil than cigarettes, which after all kill more people?

Alex Howard had kicked it off: “Context: ~35 people die from firearm homicides every day in the US (CDC), 2007 NYT infographic. (I’ve turned the short links into proper links.)

Spafford then responded: “And approximate 1205 per day die as a result of smoking tobacco. Which is the one that is the bigger evil?”

You can see how the conversation developed via Aaron’s Twitter viewer (it’s great).

Me: “generally, smoking is done voluntarily last time I looked.”

Spafford: “One might argue that most homicides are voluntary, as well. And second-hand smoke is not always voluntary. ”

Me: “vast majority of those who die from smoking do so from own hand. Quite literally. Not so with.. you know.”

Spafford: “No single cigarette is fatal. Few people light one with the intent of it leading to his or her death. Few people drive a car intending to cause a fatal accident.”

Me: “but few people in western world can light a cigarette without knowing it could harm or kill them. Not others – themselves. the intent of buying a gun though is to threaten to harm others. So – which encapsulates more evil? I’ll let you figure it.”

Spafford: “the intent of buying a gun is no more to threaten to harm others than is buying a knife or a bow & arrow. Those who target shoot, for instance, have no intent on threatening anyone.”

Me: “‘threaten to harm others’ – not necessarily [of] own species. (Pace hunters.)”

Now, looking back and looking at Spafford’s feed, I’m inclined to think he’s not a gun-totin’ Second-Amendment-smokin’ guns-for-all promoter. I think, days later, that he’s trying to stir things up in a gentle way, from his academic position. (He’s a computer science expert, who discovered the Morris worm.)

However I felt that he might have got carried away with the idea of being a bit oppositional, a bit contrary, in the face of the awful events that had unfolded on the afternoon.

He then wrote a blog post, pushing the point again. He begins by acknowledging that the shootings are tragic, then continues:

The shooter is clearly the one who should be blamed. It appears (from what has been published so far) that he may have some mental problems. And there may well be some blame to assign to those who stoked his hate and fears.

A few people have been quick to claim that the fault is that the shooter had a handgun.

I agree that guns, used carelessly or in the hands of idiots and criminals are a bad idea. But I am equally convinced, after a lifetime of working with law enforcement, the military, and the others, that the problem is not ownership or regulation of guns per se. So long as there is a minimum standard of competency and criminal background check made on those who purchase a weapon, it is probably not a problem. People who buy diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate (to make ANFO) are also dangerous, as are those who buy axes! Yet there are many, many legitimate purchases and uses of those every day.

The shooter in this recent case was determined and attacked at short range. Without a handgun he might have used a suicide bomb (to worse effect), or run his car into the crowd. Someone with strong intent will make use of whatever means may be available.

There’s a lot more – CDC numbers, comparing drunk driver deaths with gun deaths, and so on. And near the end one of his points is:

People who aren’t around responsible users of firearms, and who haven’t been trained in their use tend to be skittish about them. That is understandable. The same is true about other things, such as corrosive chemicals, poisons, and explosives. Firearms aren’t toys. Neither is HCl nor cyanide nor C4 nor dynamite. They have their uses. They should be handed with care. Users should be trained. Their misuse should be punished. And there will be people who misuse them, especially people with mental problems.

So there it was. It was on a blog, and it had a comment box – which was open. So I wrote a comment.

Which wasn’t published. And wasn’t published. And at the time of writing, still hasn’t been published. I prodded him (on Twitter) about this: “any time you want to approve my comment on your blogpost is good. It’s been almost 24 hrs now.”

His response: “When I have time to adequately respond to your silly arguments, I will.”

Cue slight bit of tooth-grinding. Look, if they’re silly arguments, it shouldn’t take any time to knock them down, should it? And approving the comment takes pretty much no time.

So here’s the comment. As a preface, let me say that I’m happy for people to argue for ownership of guns as an a priori philisophical principle – the libertarian view that ownership of things shouldn’t be constrained. At least it’s honest, and you can see if you can try to fit a razor blade around the hermetic seal of their thinking. (It can be quite hard.)

But please, don’t tell me that owning guns is a sacred right because some white guys in wigs 200 years ago who were terrified that King George would come back with the heavies (or that someone would set up their own set of heavies) decided it was expedient at that time. The US Second Amendment is a crutch that’s used for lazy thinking; for not examining where social benefit lies.

So here is the comment that I wrote, which Spafford, as I said, hasn’t so far seen fit to publish. Have a read. If you think my arguments are stupid (some are exaggerated, certainly, for effect) then do tell.

As I said, I think that to some extent he was writing to provoke, though also, I think, setting out a position. If he wants to comment here, he’s welcome. Comments are open. Though (and I’ll reiterate this at the end) I’ll take the unusual step of using strikeout (not deletion, unless libellous) on comments I deem offensive or wacko. Just because I know how this debate goes. Which is, nowhere at all, sadly.


I’m sure it’s very satisfactory to write a blogpost where you can quote to affirm your prejudices, but I’d have thought someone as intelligent as yourself would take the opportunity to posit the possibility that their previous thinking is wrong, argue against it, and see how well they can break down their old thinking – in the form of thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

Let me try, coming from the opposite perspective. Let me accept that ownership of guns should be allowed; that it’s only the very few who abuse that right.

Fine. Well then, extend that right. Why does the US government get so snitty about ownership of radioactive materials? Isn’t it every American’s right to own as much uranium, plutonium, polonium, or whatever as they like? Didn’t the Founding Fathers have personal nuclear weapons in mind when they added that bit about “the right to bear arms”? If you allow the ownership of semi-automatic and automatic guns capable of killing multiple people who are foolish enough to be in the vicinity of someone with a grudge, or just poor control of a powerful object, then surely you must allow the ownership – concealed or not – of weapons-grade radioactives. It’s your right. Sod this nonsense about radiation in a public place. Only the irresponsible, and so undeserving of our sympathy, would carry such materials around without proper shielding. And you have something to protect you from would-be muggers and assailants. Or, indeed, hungry bears.

No? Why ever not? Is it because the harm that could be caused is out of proportion to the benefits of allowing ownership?

Let’s look at that CDC data. Top four causes of sudden early death: (1) cars (2) poisoning (of which 75% are suicides) (3) guns (4) falls.

Not much to be done about (4) unless we can repeal the law of gravity, but I doubt even the Tea Party has its eyes on that one. Nor (2) since we have to allow that Drano and headache pills actually do have a peaceful use – cleaning drains, easing headaches – and that we shouldn’t ban things which are misused in opposition to or orthogonally to their primary purpose. Drano is not sold as a suicide assist; it’s sold for cleaning drains.

OK, so (1) cars. What the hell use are cars again? Oh, that’s right, personal transportation. So drunk drivers don’t actually go out on sprees looking for people to run down, you say? They’re overconfident because of the depressant effects of alcohol? Cars have a primary use that is beneficial to the wider economy? We might have to make an allowance for them. Drunk driving is still wrong. A car could still be used as a weapon. You just don’t hear of many cases where it happens [that drunk drivers go on intentional killing sprees]. At all.

And so to guns. You wrote: “Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above.”

Okey-dokey, used for hunting. That’s why the murder rate is so high in Oakland and New York – damn trigger-happy hunters seeing a bear at every street corner.

Wait, no? It’s target shooters whose weapons slip out of their pocket?

The argument about “many guns are never used to threaten another person” is so weak I’m astonished you attempt to make it. Are you seriously suggesting that 4+ million guns are sold in the US each year to people who want to go hunting and shoot targets? Really? Or might it be that they hope to persuade potentially harmful people not to threaten them, the buyers?

In which case the prime purpose of a gun is, yes, to threaten harm, and by doing so (you hope) deter it. A gun is a quintessentially different tool from a hammer, or even an axe, or fertiliser. Hammers and axes have primary uses that are not aimed at humans. Fertiliser is for, well, fertilising.

By contrast a gun is a fulfilment of every child’s God complex, to induce effect at a distance with the minimum of effort. Target shooters and hunters are actually the people who have gone beyond that level, who understand exactly why they use a gun. I’d contend that the vast majority of gun buyers and owners don’t truly know, psychologically, why they’re making the purchasing decision; they just know it makes them feel good (even if it might make their partners nervous).

I would bother dealing with the cigarette arguments if there were reports of people going on killing sprees with cigarettes, but they seem rare for some reason. As for suicide bombings, I think there have been, what, a handful of attempts in the US, all unsuccessful ( If you want to replace gun shops with suicide vest shops, that seems to me a good idea; at least it would be a more honest description of what can happen from owning a gun.

Notwithstanding all the above, I recognise that the US’s longstanding policy on gun ownership means that it is nigh on impossible to alter the equation of gun ownership. You could try banning bullets, but they’re even easier to smuggle than guns. (In the UK, you can be arrested for carrying live ammunition. The UK really is hot on firearms control.)

But even with that said, to pretend that guns are somehow “safe” because they kill fewer people than cars only indicates that the debate has ceased to be a debate; instead it’s reached the religious level, where idees fixes have completely taken over the minds of adherents and detractors alike, and cannot be budged without the most enormous effort of will. To ask gun adherents to imagine an America without the Second Amendment is like asking a Christian to imagine a world without their imaginary God. From what I’ve seen, there’s a relatively large overlap there. Which ought to give pause for thought. Dogma is dangerous wherever it’s found.


To reiterate: you’re free to comment. But I reserve the right to strike it out (it’ll still be there, just a lot less visible) if you’re offensive. Argument – reasoned argument, or explanations of where I’ve been silly are welcome. I can take it.


  1. I dont quite understand the “we have to have guns for our own safety” argument. For one thing, it doesn’t work i forget where i saw the figures but they read that you are considerably more likely to have a gunshot victim in your household if you are in fact a gun owner. The deterrent effect just doesn’t exist.

    On top of that groups claim that they bear arms to stop the state becoming too powerful. Where were these organisations when previous governments introduced things like the patriot act?

  2. On top of that groups claim that they bear arms to stop the state becoming too powerful. Where were these organisations when previous governments introduced things like the patriot act?

    ^this. When was the last time that an actual threat or imposition made by the US government against their people’s liberty was halted by gun owners? In what respect has gun ownership made them a freer people than peoples who do not have the legal right to carry guns?

  3. So many issues to think about, but let’s start with “why?”.

    The first reason given (or implied by the rhetoric) is that armed citizens are the last defence against a tyrannical government. This is a weird perversion of the democratic ideal, where government is chosen by and accountable to the people. But it suggest that democratic government may enact laws that so terrible only armed citizens can stop it. Apart from the practical issues (exactly how do you organise enough citizens in defiance of government controls to mount an insurrection?), it also suggests a fear of government, always watching for the signs of the approaching tyranny.

    The second reason given is defence of people and property. That’s harder to argue against if you live in an already violent society, but it also says that people cannot trust the police or their neighbors to come to their aid.

    In both cases, guns are the last hope of the individual ie. when the government or the criminals come for me, then only thing standing in their way will be me and my gun. It’s an ultimately negative outlook on life, trusting no one, always fearful of either bogeyman coming and ultimately destroying connections between people.

    I have a few more ideas about this, but let’s see what others come up with …

  4. I’ll take this argument outside of the US and its gun-murder problems, completely ignore cigarettes (I find that best!) and just come back to the “why not?” question. [Register of interests: prior to the last gun mediastorm in the UK which banned handguns but did nothing to lower the murder rate I was a member of a university gun club, an old institution “killed” off for no good purpose]

    As you say, many things kill people, primarily through misuse or misadventure. A number of objects ostensibly in the control of people cause a very large number of deaths, motorised vehicles being the primary offender here. But you shouldn’t blame the car nor the gun when someone, accidentally or deliberately, causes it to kill.

    The statistics do not lend themselves to the banning of gun ownership among the law-abiding population; as is well known, any number of countries with very high rates of gun ownership have very low murder and gun-murder rates. This strongly suggests it is not the gun ownership that is the primary issue, but something in the cultural attitude towards guns and, I fear, around the relative value of the individual life. I think the latter factors are clearly at play in the US.

    Since the UK banned handguns after its own system failure allowed a disturbed individual to legally own a number of weapons, gun crime has increased rather than decreased; in several of the countries near the top for gun ownership (e.g. Norway, Sweden, Canada, Austria, Switzerland) gun crime is low and the murder rate is low. In the US both gun ownership and gun crime are high, but correlation is not causation as the other figures show. What the US more likely has a problem with is a low valuation of other people’s lives, reflected in its poor social safety net and, dare I say it, use of violent rhetoric in politics. This is exacerbated by the national rhetoric around guns which results in some states going to extremes to ensure gun ownership is a right far too easily exercised and without any purpose beyond the possible threat to harm another.

    Banning gun ownership in the US, second amendment permitting, would likely reduce gun crime in the US, if (and it is a very big if) they could manage to collect up the enormous number of guns and ammunition in circulation. But banning the instrument does not fix the underlying issue, and it is assigning blame incorrectly; fixing the societal problems will have far more positive benefit without making yet more laws and crimes.

    Why shouldn’t you or I be allowed to be a member of a gun club and be a responsible owner of a gun? Are you saying we cannot be responsible enough?

  5. I’ve always found this to be a fascinating debate. I think Chris Puttick raises some interesting points. While I personally find personal ownership of guns outside the sporting arena pretty abhorrent, it does seem clear that simple banning is a pretty blunt way of reducing crime attributable to them. That said, the sheer physical reality of reducing people’s access to them (if in fact that was achieved) would have obvious social benefit. But Chris’ comments about the underlying social malaise which results in so much gun-related homicide in the US is particularly interesting. The selfish, hyper-individualist perspective which seems to pervade much of American society must have something to do with this. It’s quite scary the degree to which many Americans’ minds seem to be closed to ideas of community and equality, and as AS says this is a profoundly negative outlook on life, and one which is reinforced by America’s slavish devotion to capitalist/neoliberal ideals.

  6. @Thene, AS etc: On the Second Amendment and oppressive governments, you have to bear in mind when the US Constitution was written. The new government had just won a guerilla war against the British and feared a subsequent invasion, which was attempted it was occupying governments they had in mind rather than their own: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It’s broadly similar to the reason why the Swiss have guns.

    The gun-rights lobby tends to gloss over the actual wording and just bang on about the “right to bear arms” because it weakens the idea that the Second Amendment is about individual freedom.

  7. Oh cr*p. I meant to correct that to Bill of Rights. The Constitution doesn’t have any amendments in it.

  8. Following up on Chris Puttrick’s comments, I can comfortably live with an argument that some people ‘need’ access to firearms.

    In Australia, that means farmers, professional hunters, sporting shooters and some collectors. They must demonstrate the need, have a licence to purchase a gun, and then a licence to own the gun (which all take time). They must store the gun and ammunition in separate lockable containers which are subject to random police checks (I know, because my brother-in-law on the farm lost his .22 rifle after a random check). In other words, you not only require people to be responsible owners, but you regulate and enforce that responsibility.

    Most of these laws were introduced after our own gun-related tragedy. There was a buy-back scheme under which the Government bought firearms at agreed prices. After that, there was an amnesty when anyone could hand in a weapon without fear of prosecution. After that, merely possessing an unlicensed weapon is a serious offence.

    I know for a fact that criminal still have access to weapons. But by removing many guns from circulation (eg. casual theft from homes), the effective price for them has gone up and out of the way of casual criminals ie. it is the serious, organised criminals who have them. So, we see the bikie gangs engaging in odd shootings against each other, but you hardly ever hear of a suburban petrol station being held up with a gun. They are just too expensive for the casual criminal.

    Be wary of comparing statistics on crime. In Australia, an ‘armed robbery’ could involved threatening up a cash register operator with a blood filled syringe. It means being armed with any weapon, not ncessarily a gun.

    Finally, having lived most of my 45 years in Australia, I have never seen a drawn hand gun (although all police officers have them). I have never seen an automatic weapon in public spaces (apart from museums), even at airports (unlike in the UK). I have ever only seen a weapon fired once, when my father-in-law took his son on a failed rabbit shooting expedition. I quite like the idea that guns don’t feature prominently in my life or thoughts. I don’t worry about violent crime, although it clearly happens, or threats to my life or property. I am happy to rely on the impartial instutions of the state to protect my interests, and wield my supreme power with a pencil and paper at the ballot box.

    I have one more thought on this topic, but let’s see what others contribute…

  9. The gun laws in the US never cease to amaze me. The argument that cars kill more people than guns is a ridiculous one. Old age kills more people than cars do – what does it matter? Doesn’t make deaths in road traffic accidents irrelevant.

    There would be far less need for people to “protect themselves,” with guns anyway were there fewer would-be gun wielding maniacs with the means to get their hands on one.

    Great piece.