Guest blogger: Gun control and the availability heuristic

NOTE: I was going to write about this topic and I probably will in the next few days, but faithful reader of Contrary and friend, Stan Oh asked if he might do a blog post on the topic. He has some interesting thoughts. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with what he writes, but it is an interesting sober take on a hot button, emotional issue.

If you’re in the “obviously we need to ban guns” camp like me and are open to having the obviousness of your position challenged, check out Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic on Tuscon and Megan McArdle on The Daily Beast on Newtown.

In summary, both Goldberg and McArdle agree that with almost 300 million guns already in circulation, banning guns outright is an impossible (and unconstitutional) task. Both support closing the gun show loophole which is something everyone likes although it’s worth noting that no gun show guns were used in Newtown, Tuscon, Virginia Tech and most of the other mass shootings in the U.S. (the only exception I could find was Columbine where a friend of the killers made a straw purchase on their behalf at a gun show—even then if a background check was required she would’ve passed). In fact, gun shows were the source of less than 1% of the guns used by incarcerated criminals in general.

McArdle seems to say “these things are gonna happen from time to time deal with it” and in the end wants unarmed people to bum rush mass shooters (just read it). McArdle is being ridiculed for this suggestion but Goldberg points out that it’s the same one being made by the Dept of Homeland Security if you are faced with an “active shooter” situation. It’s the type of thing that makes a person a hero. McArdle’s suggestion may be unrealistic but to guffaw at it is to show cynicism toward the hero-potential of the average citizen.

It seems like Goldberg subscribes to the popular gun rights argument that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens can help reduce gun deaths. But he denies wanting teachers to carry guns even though he says:

I put to Tom Mauser a variation of the question I had asked Barton. What if a teacher or an administrator inside Columbine High School had been armed on the day of the massacre? Unlike the theater in Aurora, the school was brightly lit, and not as densely packed. If someone with a gun had confronted Harris and Klebold in the library, he or she would have been able, at the very least, to distract the killers—perhaps even long enough for them to be tackled or disarmed.

In his piece, Goldberg takes on critics of right to carry, like John Gilchrist, the legislative counsel for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police. Gilchrist, in his 2003 testimony against the state’s proposed right to carry law said “If 200,000 to 300,000 citizens begin carrying a concealed weapon, common sense tells us that accidents will become a daily event.” The law passed and went into effect in 2004. Goldberg spoke to Gilchrist recently to see if his prediction panned out:

Gilchrist said he did not know the exact statistics on gun-related incidents…He says, however, that he tracks gun usage anecdotally. “You can look in the newspaper. I consciously look for stories that deal with guns. There are more and more articles in The Columbus Dispatch about people using guns inappropriately.”

I and I think most gun control advocates have these types of thoughts and Goldberg rightly questions them. A psychologist would say Gilchrist is operating under the availability heuristic—”when people make judgments about the probability of events by the ease with which examples come to mind” (Wikipedia).The ease with which examples of gun violence come to mind is very high. “If it bleeds it leads” media culture is largely to blame here I think. Any argument supported mostly by “common sense” and anecdotal evidence needs closer scrutiny. This I think is where obviousness comes in. An opinion that seems rooted in common sense seems obviously right. Goldberg continues:

Gilchrist’s argument would be convincing but for one thing: the firearm crime rate in Ohio remained steady after the concealed-carry law passed in 2004.

Goldberg’s right and that puts a real crimp in the central argument of gun control advocates—that more guns lead to more crime. In response to Goldberg, Alex Seitz-Wald on Salon.com writes:

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently conducted a review of all the existing academic literature on right-to-carry and found: “The most consistent finding across studies which correct for these flaws is that RTC laws are associated with an increase in aggravated assaults.” They estimated the increase to be about 1 to 9 percent.

So which is it? Goldberg’s selection of Ohio might have something to do with the discrepancy. 41 states have implemented “shall issue” right to carry laws, it might be more useful to look at the rate of gun crime in the aggregate. Is Ohio an outlier? What about the suicide rate? Surely right to carry correlates with a clear increase in the suicide rate given the famous link between owning guns and suicide? The suicide rate in the U.S. has been declining steadily for the past 20 years.

But here’s the confusing part for me: it seems like both Goldberg and Seitz-Wald are assuming that right to carry laws increase the rate of gun ownership but during the 10 year period that most states passed right to carry, rates of gun ownership in the U.S. have either remained steady or declined depending on who you listen to. During that period there was a decline in violent crime and suicide rates, gun accidents did not become a “daily event” (swimming pools are another story.) In this context, the assumption on the part of gun control advocates that having lax gun control laws leads to an increase in the number of guns that leads to an increase in gun crime is far from obvious.