Gun control versus terrorism control

The current meme on right wing talk radio regarding gun control is that there are some rare unforeseeable tragedies—such as the Newtown massacre—that just occur as part of the random awfulness of life.  Government cannot prevent every last bad outcome, counseled Rush Limbaugh yesterday.  Michael Medved deconstructed the various proposed gun measures and persuasively argued that none of them would have prevented Adam Lanza from gaining access to his guns; today Medved repeatedly asserted that pace the President, there is no “epidemic of gun violence”—gun violence is dropping, he rightly said (which begs the question of whether even if shootings are falling, the level of gun violence in the U.S. can rightly be characterized as an “epidemic”).

These are by and large wise words, even though as a purely instinctual matter, having no affinity for guns, I am readily prepared to accept tighter limits on high-powered weaponry, regardless of the inexact fit between the legislative goal and the desired outcome.  (I understand the arguments to the contrary, however, even if I do not resonate to them.)    The problem with this “don’t expect the government to protect you from every harm” argument is that conservatives flagrantly ignore it when it comes to Islamic terrorism.  If mass shootings are extremely rare, Islamist-inspired homicides on American soil are rarer still.  According to Michael Shermer, citing research by James Alan Fox, an average of 25 people are murdered with guns each day, or one an hour (a rate that if caused by influenza would clearly be deemed “epidemic”).  There are 20 mass shootings a year (defined as taking out at least four victims).  By contrast, we have had the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and the Fort Hood shootings—three incidents over two decades.  And yet conservative opposition to the creation of an entire new federal department to fight terrorism was muted at best, and largely limited to issues of unionization.  As for the need for some sort of massive federal effort, not to mention a war, to protect Americans from terrorism, conservatives were nearly all on board.  We now have an entire multibillion dollar terrorism-industrial complex selling government ever more high-tech goodies to detect and guard against a largely hypothetical threat (especially regarding chemical and biological weaponry), and infantilizing airport security measures that cost billions in lost time and thus commerce. 

Many in the right-wing media world warn regularly about the unending threat of Islamic terrorism, and rail demagogically against Democratic politicians for not doing enough to protect us from the threat.  Yet garden variety gun violence takes out magnitudes more Americans each year than terrorism.

Gun rights advocates might respond that the difference is the Second Amendment.  But as Justice Scalia has pointed out, a right to bear arms does not rule out reasonable regulations on assault weapons, whose existence the Founders did not necessarily foresee.  And in any case, the issue is simply how one evaluates risk.  


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23 Responses to Gun control versus terrorism control

  1. Sevesteen says:

    20 mass shootings per year is much higher than any other count I’ve seen–A brief Google search shows that 2012 is the highest ever with 6.

    The founders didn’t foresee radio, television or the Internet, but freedom of speech and freedom of the press isn’t limited to 1800’s technology. If the second amendment can be interpreted to allow banning most gun features invented after 1899, almost all purpose or protection from it is gone.

  2. djf says:

    Heather, I don’t necessarily disagree with your point, but it should be noted that you don’t consider the possibility that the government’s anti-terrorism measures may have averted some serious terrorist incidents. It would appear that anti-terrorrism initiatives have been effective in the past – there have been no further signficant militia-type terrorist events since the Oklahoma City bombing. And your argument could be appropriated by opponents of the government’s completely legal monitoring of domestic Islamist groups.

  3. David P. Redmond says:

    What the founders foresaw, from looking at examples throughout history, was government’s natural tendency to grow more powerful, more corrupt, and more tyrannical. That is why they recognized the natural inherent right to self defense, the 2nd Amendment is about equal force to oppose tyrannical agents, not the style of arms at the time.

  4. Toni says:

    That would be all fine and well and good were the current administration as tough on terrorists as they seek to be on law-abiding gun owners.

  5. whirlwinder says:

    While terrorism is not much of a factor in America today, it will grow as Islam populates our nation. As you know, as Islam grows in any locale, crime, rape, mayhem and murder grow on an exponential basis. Just look at Europe now where Islam has reached epidemic proportions. The car bombings and rapes there are epic. And the crime rates are off the charts. Europe does not even report all the stats and it is still bad. How bad do you think it will be when there are 30 million muslims in America? All bent on implementing shariah.

  6. Conor says:

    You’re assuming conservatives support the actions DHS has been taking over the last few years, and you’re assuming conservatives are okay with babies, grannies, and nuns being strip searched at airports. They’re not. They’re also not okay with the politically correct way the war in Afghanistan has been waged. So, you can keep blaming conservatives for this or that, when in reality, the problems you’re discussing are the picture of liberal mismanagement.

    And, as the individual above me said, how many attacks have been stopped? I can think of almost ten off the top of my head.

  7. JTwig says:

    Have to agree with the first poster. You only cited successful terrorist attacks, but didn’t mention the many known failed attacks (the underwear bomber, the times square bomber, though both of those failed by their own measures and not through counter-terrorism actions). Plus, there have been several high-profile FBI bust on alleged and convicted terrorist cells (not all Islamic related).

  8. Toni says:

    Oh, and the Founders did not foresee ye olde Internet either, yet here we all are. Don’t get caught in the “the didn’t foresee it so we can ban it” rhetoric. And it is rhetoric. Try using the argument with Libs on abortion mills and you’ll see I’m right.

  9. starboardhelm says:

    “But as Justice Scalia has pointed out, a right to bear arms does not rule out reasonable regulations on assault weapons, whose existence the Founders did not necessarily foresee.”

    They also did not foresee that we would need to defend ourselves against such weapons. Nor did they foresee the internet, blogs, TV, streaming videos and ubiquitous cell phones — or even offset printing — when they wrote the first amendment.

    It’s the principles of self defense and collective defense that are at stake, and our ability as a people to defend our sovereignty. We can’t stand ready to do that with only stones and knives if our enemies are armed with guns and mortars.

    Obama’s penchant for partisan feel-good yet ineffective policy is what led to the tragedy at the consulate in Benghazi. Let’s not let that happen again in our schools.

  10. Jay says:

    Heather, Most if not all mass shootings are the acts of individuals with clear mental defect, they are not working in concert with others.Although most targets of a terrorist attack in America are random, the planning, manpower and money needed to pull of the attack is very deliberate. I also think it is disappointing that you mix general statistic (25 murders a day mainly with hand guns) with the high profile mass shootings (high powered weaponry) You should learn a little more about guns in general and you would understand that most “Hunting” rifles are far more powerful than AR-15 Styled guns that have been making the news. I do not question your desire to have meaningful change in our society but you do not have the right to surrender my rights.

  11. Washington Nearsider says:

    How many Americans have been killed by terrorists in the last 20 years?

    Now, how many Americans killed by ‘assault rifles’ in the same time period?

  12. jdk says:

    Don’t link true conservatives with the NEOCONS. True conservatives despise the Department of Homeland Security and would see it dismantled.

  13. Brett Thomas says:

    I absolutely want to say that you are correct on the terrorism point. We spend way too much money (and give up way too much of our liberty) on this non-existant threat.

    However, on the matter of “assault weapons” you have fallen into a basic assumptional error. Interestingly the experience of trying to explain to someone who has “no affinity for guns” that “assault weapons” don’t exist is very much like trying to explain to a believer why I think God doesn’t exist: It’s so intuitive that he does exist that I’m simply dismissed.

    I will try again, however. The fundamental idea behind “assault weapons” is that there are some guns that are extra-dangerous.

    I’d argue if you were trying to set about to describe an objective taxonomy of guns, not held down by our (often emotional) preconceptions, there are three basic attributes that would matter on the scale of “can you use this gun to kill lots of people”.

    First, when you fire it, what do you have to do to fire it again? Do you have to work something manually (as with a bolt-action rifle or pump shotgun) or is it ready to fire the next round as soon as you pull the trigger again?

    Second, when you’ve fired the last shot, how do you reload it? Is it a matter of putting cartridges in the firearm one-by-one, or is it a simple and quick magazine change?

    Third and finally, how big a cartridge does it fire? Is it something small and low-powered (like a .22LR) or something bigger and more powerful?

    It seems obvious from these distinctions that the weapons that it’s easier to kill lots of people with are ones that are quickly and automatically ready to shoot after each shot; that take detachable magazines; and fire larger bullets.

    The problem is – *that is basically all guns*. Certainly a majority of guns sold each year in the US have those attributes.

    So, what are “assault weapons”? If you actually read the laws, they are defined as guns that look cool. The laws always focus on things like pistol grips, or folding stocks, or bayonet lugs (yes, literally). That’s because there’s no fundamental difference between an “assault weapon” and a “hunting rifle” other than looks.

    The reason those of us in the gun community are opposed to outlawing “assault weapons” is because if you can outlaw these – literally the most popular rifles in America by sales by the way – then you can outlaw anything. To say nothing of the fact that it’s just stupid to make people felons for having cosmetic features on their rifle.

    Generally speaking when I’ve explained how the “assault weapons” laws focus on cosmetic features, the response I’ve gotten is, “Oh, well, yeah *that* is stupid – we need to make better laws that actually outlaw the super-dangerous guns”. What I’m trying to tell you is that there *are* no super-dangerous guns. The are guns. They’re all dangerous to some degree.

    If you feel that there are some features about guns that should be outlawed because they make it easy to kill lots of people, it would be features like accepting magazines, or firing large bullets, or being ready for the next shot without you needing to work an action. But if you carve those out you are essentially banning all guns designed after about 1910. There’s not a “simple common-sense” regulation that just fixes this. Saying “no one needs an assault weapon” is exactly saying “no one needs a hunting rifle” or “no one needs a self-defense rifle”.

    I also find it amusing that these rifles, which are supposedly only good for killing as many people as quickly as possible, are routinely issued to police. When we have them they’re “assault weapons” but when they have them they’re “patrol rifles”. Funny how framing and names make it hard to see the truth.

  14. jb says:

    John Muhammad (and his sidekick Malvo) certainly did not need any assualt weapons to accomplish their terror. Neither did Hasan in Texas.

  15. bflat879 says:

    Although you only count a couple of attacks, we did have a World Trade Center bombing, a couple of embassies bombed, a ship bombed, we had a guy try to set his shoes off and another try to fire off his underwear, all of that in addition to the successful attacks on the World Trade Center.

  16. JC penny says:


    Please do your homework a little better: “According to Michael Shermer, citing research by James Alan Fox, an average of 25 people are murdered with guns each day, or one an hour (a rate that if caused by influenza would clearly be deemed “epidemic”).” That equates to less than 10,000 a year without any differentiation as to motives behind the murder…nor if the lack of guns — however unlikely — would result in 10,000 less homicides. A flu ‘epidemic’ in America would cause far far more deaths. In fact, without media scare mongering, roughly 36,000 deaths a year in America are attributed to the flu with far more required to be labelled an ‘epidemic’. You cited an obvious/odious falsehood to support your desire to take yet another incremental step that has no first-order impact on you.

    I don’t own a gun and probably never will, even though I shot expert routinely in the military. This emotional crisis that’s being fanned by the left is far more about the erosion of our freedoms than lethal weapons. If the fact that you don’t have a gun allows you to justify their restriction then perhaps you are writing for the wrong site.


  17. hydrogator says:

    Heather – The greatest mass killers in the history of the world were socialist, marxist, communist, secular humanists, etc. just like Barack Obama. If Bill Ayers, Obama’s good friend, had no problem killing 25% of the American people, Obama would not either. Lay down with dogs and you get up with fleas. Guns don’t rank in the top fifteen causes of death in this country according to the CDC. You support your right to own a car and swim in a pool because it makes you happy but both kill more people every year than guns. Neither a car or pool will give you a fighting chance against a tyrant. I don’t want to hear about how an ordinary citizen with a gun can not stand up to tanks and jets when they are doing it everyday around the world. The problem with the US is that it is infested with weak cowards that want to live of the work of others. Liberal policy has probably killed more people in this country than guns.

  18. Adam says:

    This is very disappointing, given MacDonald’s brilliant analyses of crime policy and leftist attempts to subvert the justice system. Is it really possible that she doesn’t know the difference between the occasional nut and civilizational war waged against us by a large part, with the support, at least tacit, of a much larger part, of the Muslim world? The problem is not the focus on Islamic terrorism, or, more broadly, Islamism, or even more broadly, Islam itself–all that requires far more intense and clear headed focus. The problem is presenting the issue in terms of “safety” and “protecting” the public, as opposed to identifying and destroying enemies. MacDonald, as she does with the race industry, should direct her sharp analytical, reporting, and polemical skills to the “Islamophobia” industry that, as Andrew McCarthy and others have shown at great length try to present Islamic war making as the actions of a small fringe, rather than an imperative rooted in Islamic doctrine. Instead of these silly quantitative comparisons, as if 9/11=3,000 murders committed in any way, the question is, how shall we name and describe things? Is CAIR a civil rights group or a part of the war against us? Do we avoid “defaming” the “prophet” or tell the world our citizens can say whatever they want? Are those not committing murder right at this moment (like the Muslim Brotherhood) “moderates” or simply the PR and organizational form of jihad? Do airlines have a right to refuse service to anyone they consider a danger or are they going to be hauled into court for asserting that right? If we get the answers to these questions right, the particular defensive and offensive measures will fall into place.

  19. Duane says:

    There are a few things missing in your arguments. First, there are no Federal laws against murder, armed robbery, assault, except when very strict circumstances come into play. So for the Federal Gov’t to be involved in trying to restrict citizens’ rights based on ‘good intentions’ without having jurisdiction over the crimes committed is a breach of legal precedence.
    Second, there are NO statistics to back up the premise that any gun bans will reduce gun crime. Criminals don’t obey the law by definition. The laws restricting non-criminals buying, owning, and usage behavior, cannot possibly affect criminal activity; the two groups are mutually exclusive so punishing the good for the actions of the bad is something better left for misguided elementary school teachers trying to teach peer pressure concepts.
    Third, you discount the lives of our brave men and women in uniform with your fallacious numbers on the number of American lives taken by terrorists. We attempted to deal with the Taliban to eject/reject OBL and AQ in their county after 9-11. We also tried to negotiate with Iraq before beginning hostilities. We didn’t “Rush Into” anything. The heroes lost in the war on terror have paid for our safety and you diminish their sacrifice when you ignore the truth on that.

  20. Scotty says:

    One difference, the federal government is responsible for protect the people from foreign threats, which includes terrorism. You may debate the effectiveness of the actions taken, but at least that is part of its responsibility.

    The second amendment is a completely separate argument. At the time the constitution was written, the use of firearms for hunting and self defense were part of common law, applicable to anyone who owned firearms. The second amendment was written to allow the people to have and use firearms to protect themselves from the federal government (which was a rare concept at the time). In short, the army is to protect the country from foreign governments, and the people were allowed firearms to protect themselves from the federal government. And the founding fathers did not intend to only provide the people with the means to mount a symbolic and tragically ineffective fight against the government, the intended to give the people the means to fight, and WIN! Therefore the people were to be allowed the same weapons as the army, not just the muskets that were available then. This intention is clearly indicated in the personal writings of the founding fathers.

    Think of it this way. The Iraq army was much better equipped than the militia George Washington fought the British with. If the Iraq army (pre-Iraq war, of course), fought against the colonial militia, who’d win? AK-47s vs. muskets? The Iraq army would’ve slaughtered them. And how long did the Iraq army last against the modern US army? You can argue that the federal gov using the army against the people “wouldn’t happen”, but there is no imminent threat provision to the second amendment. The people are guaranteed the right to effective defense from the federal government, period. And through the common law provisions, are able to use those same firearms to hunt and protect their families. Any other interpretation is to misconstrue the intentions of the founding fathers.

  21. John says:

    Heather, you make an interesting analogy. I see the differences as

    1) Sometimes guns are used for a good purpose, but there is no good purpose of terrorism. More gun control laws will hinder positive uses of guns (self defence), but not much hinder negative uses of guns (to commit crimes). The war on terror does not threaten positive uses of terrorism, because there aren’t any.

    2) The war on terrorism has been more successful than most gun control measures would be. Since 9/11, the US government has prevented the majority of planned terrorist attacks on American soil from taking place. Gun control laws would not prevent the majority of murders.

    3) The taking of people’s guns is usually a prelude to significantly worse behavior by governments. Guns are indeed a bulwark against tyranny. Not withstanding the hand wringing about the Patriot Act, the war on terror does not threaten most people’s freedom in important ways.

    4) Terrorists with WMDs could kill millions of people. A criminal with guns can’t.

  22. Adam says:

    Still moderating my comment? What thorough moderators you must be! Very moderate moderators, no doubt!

  23. Nick says:

    It is just astonishing that the people here can not look to other countries which have banned guns and as a result have been much more peaceful, and have not become tyrannies at all.

    All throughout the developed world, guns are harder to own, people are safer, and the imagined threat of government tyranny has not materialized.

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