A productive political debate, much like a game or an athletic competition, is simultaneously competitive and cooperative. The competitive element is obvious: two sides butt heads with one another, making the best possible arguments for their points of view in the hopes of “winning” the debate. But the cooperative element, which consists of the rules and structural realities that we must agree on before the game or debate can take place, is equally important.
The most important rule in a debate, for example, is an assumption of goodwill on both sides. Painting your opponent as evil, apathetic, or corrupt simply because they disagree with your policies breaks this basic rule. While it’s possible that your opponent may actually be some or all of those things, it is not useful to make ad hominem attacks, especially if the goal is not simply “winning”, but actually having a meaningful policy conversation.
Needless to say, this first rule of productive political debate is often thrown out the window by members on both ends of the political spectrum, but particularly by many on the American left, who use claims of racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry as clubs with which to pummel anyone who happens to disagree with them. Such character attacks put their recipients in the uncomfortable position of having to prove that they are not a bigot, and that they simply have different views on the most effective policies. This is one of many reasons why our political discussions in the United States today feel so fraught with tension, hostility, and disdain.
In addition to rules, there are certain structural realities that we all must agree on in order to have a debate. Within the context of a game, think of this as establishing the boundaries for the field of play, which are explicitly demarcated and agreed upon. You cannot have a game of soccer, for example, if the players do not agree on where the goals are, where the penalty box is, and what’s out of bounds.
For political and cultural debates, this field of play is called the Overton window, also known as the window of discourse. The Overton window describes the range of views that are tolerated in public discourse. Ideas in the center of the window are considered reasonable and are likely to be popular; while radical ideas will be located toward the edges. Extremely controversial ideas are not allowed within the Overton window at all, because they are counter to the society’s values or are based on bad information, and are therefore not worth talking about.
The Overton window sets the bounds of play in which a political debate can take place. An appropriately sized Overton window will allow individuals to think with some degree of freedom about what is possible, while setting certain lines that the society will not cross. But not every window of discourse is appropriately sized. Many American conservatives have accused the left of gradually, but radically, shrinking the Overton window on a range of issues. Many widely held conservative positions, which are by no means radical or extreme, are becoming labeled as such—at least according to mainstream media outlets and liberal politicians.
The shrinking of the Overton window goes hand in hand with the ubiquity of ad hominem attacks. The reason why conservatives can be dismissed as racists, sexists and homophobes, even if they outwardly condemn such attitudes, is because the window of discourse is smaller than it once was. This has pushed conservative views (from the perspective of the left) further toward the edges of the window—or outside of it altogether.
This begs the question, who sets the size of the Overton window? And what is the logic behind the boundaries that are set?
The most obvious answer to the “who” question is the mainstream media. Few organizations have as much power as CNN or The New York Times to determine what is or what is not acceptable, along with what is or isn’t true. Politicians, universities, activists and everyday citizens are also instrumental in this role in varying degrees.
As for the question of logic, the boundaries of the Overton window are, or at least should be, made up of facts. A fact is something that is indisputably true, something that all reasonable individuals should be able to agree on regardless of political leaning. Hans Rosling makes the case in his phenomenal book Factfulness that one of the biggest problems that prevents people from making sound policy decisions is that they have inaccurate knowledge about the world. Either the relevant facts are not known, or they are somehow disregarded, often as a product of ideology or innate cognitive biases. This is a serious problem, because we need to have a baseline agreement about the current state of the world before we can have a meaningful discussion about the world we would like to create and how best to create it.
In the remainder of this article, I’d like to take this framework of thinking and apply it to the U.S. gun debate, which in my mind is a good example of a window of discourse that could use some better facts-based boundaries. With Rosling’s influence in mind, my goal with this article is not to advocate for or against particular gun policies; rather my goal here is simply to describe the 6 most important facts about the current status of guns in the United States. Together, these six facts set up the boundaries in which a productive gun debate could take place. My hope is that by agreeing on these facts, we can start to have more productive conversations about guns in America.
A final note before getting into the facts: When reading this article, I ask that you be charitable with me and recognize the difference between “is” and “ought.” In other words, I am not saying, nor do I expect everyone to believe, that these facts describe how the world should be. It is perfectly reasonable for you to read some of these points and feel uncomfortable, or to wish that they were not true. But whether we like it or not, this is how the world actually is, and accepting reality for what it is is the first step toward transforming it into whatever we would like it to be.
Fact #1: The United States has an inordinate number of gun deaths each year.
This is the starting point for a productive gun debate, if only because it is the reason why we have a gun debate at all. According to the CDC, there were 39,773 firearm deaths in 2017, which amounts to about 12 firearm deaths per 100,000 people.
As is often pointed out when evaluating firearm statistics, a sizable percentage (59.95%) were suicides. A further 486 were unintentional; 338 had undetermined causes, and 553 were legal interventions or operations of war. This leaves 14,542 firearm deaths (36.5%) that are considered homicides, which includes murder and manslaughter.
Whether or not this number strikes you as low or high is a matter of perspective. For example, if you take that number as a percent of the 2,744,248 deaths that occurred in 2017, firearm homicides accounted for 0.005% of all deaths—which might seem acceptably low to some. When compared to other countries, however, particularly countries that are similarly wealthy to the United States, the number of firearm deaths is extremely high. According to a comprehensive study titled “Global Mortality From Firearms, 1990-2016”, the United States had the second-highest number of firearm deaths of any country in the world. Only Brazil had more. The number of firearm homicides also seems to translate to a higher overall homicide rate. The homicide rate for the United States in 2017 was 5.35 homicides per 100,000 people, which is much higher than the rates of other countries around the world: Italy–0.67, United Kingdom–1.20, Sweden–1.08, China–0.62, Japan–0.28, Kenya–4.87, and Egypt–2.51.
According to the FBI crime database, firearms are used in about two-thirds or more of all homicides in the United States each year. Recognizing that the United States has an exceptional amount of gun violence compared to many other countries is important critical before we can have discussions about what can be done about it.
Accepting Fact #1
Accepting Fact #1 means acknowledging that the United States has a gun violence problem, especially when compared to other developed countries. The political left tends to focus overwhelmingly on this fact, while some individuals on the political right have a tendency to overlook it. I understand that guns rights activists may be hesitant to admit that there is a gun violence problem in America, because they are afraid that such an admission is bound to lead to stricter gun control measures. But this is not necessarily the case: gun control is just one possible tool to reduce gun violence. If gun rights activists do not want more gun control, then they should be ready to make other policy suggestions, rather than simply saying that the current reality is as good as the country could be.
This statement is supported by Gallup survey data which shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans are in favor of stricter gun laws, suggesting that the American people believe that the current amount of gun violence is a problem. Even for purely political reasons then, gun rights activists should be thinking of alternative policies that address the problem of gun violence, or else gun control will become the default option.
Fact #2: There is a compelling ethical argument for individual gun ownership rooted in the basic right to defend oneself.
Some readers might be shaking their heads because this is not a “fact” in the traditional sense. It’s true that the above statement is not based on a statistic or an experimental measure. But I’m hoping I can sneak this statement into the fact category by staying that, while not all people agree with the ethical argument for individual gun ownership, nearly everyone should recognize that the argument has some merit to it. As was the case with Fact #1, if there were not a compelling ethical argument for individual gun ownership, then there would be no gun debate.
With all of that said, let’s consider the following scenario:
If I were to tackle you, sit on top of you, and begin punching you with full force, would you have the right to respond to my violence with violence of your own? No matter what my reasons were for attacking you, the answer is obviously yes; nearly everyone on earth would agree that in this scenario you would have the right to fight back against me by punching, kicking, scratching—whatever was necessary to fend me off. Realistically, if such a situation were ever to actually occur, you would instinctively respond in this way. There would not be any internal debate on your part. The fists would start flying almost immediately, because no reasonable person would sit idly by and allow themselves to be pummeled, or perhaps killed. Such a response would be deemed ethically appropriate by all but the most dogmatic of pacifists.
Now let’s consider a slightly different situation:
What if the target of my aggression were your child instead of you? Would you be correct to use violence to intervene? Once again, the answer is obviously “Yes.” The fact that you would no longer be fighting for your own self-preservation is not important. Even if the child were not your own, but simply an unknown child, you would still have the right, if not the obligation, to step in and protect the child.
Let’s consider a third and final situation:
What if the assailant were attacking you or a child with something other than their fists? What if they had a weapon like a knife or a gun? Your right to defend yourself and others is still obvious, but assuming you were unarmed, your actual ability to fend off the attacker would be vastly reduced. The unfortunate reality is that if you were ever to find yourself unarmed against a person with a gun, a knife, or any other kind of weapon looking to do you and others harm, you are likely to lose that fight 99 times out of 100.
This naturally raises the question: Do you have a right to be armed?
For me and other supporters of individual gun ownership, the answer is once again “Yes,” because if you are not able to arm yourself in response to an armed threat, you have effectively surrendered your right to defend yourself and others. You are left with nothing but bad options: charging, running, hiding, and praying.
Sam Harris argues this point well in his essay titled “The Riddle of the Gun”, published following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. In it, Mr. Harris eloquently describes the ethical importance of civilian gun ownership by asking readers to consider the practical implications of a world without firearms:
“Like most gun owners, I understand the ethical importance of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them. I suspect that sentiment will shock many readers. Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. There have been cases of prison guards (who generally do not carry guns) helplessly standing by as one of their own was stabbed to death by a lone prisoner armed with an improvised blade. The hesitation of bystanders in these situations makes perfect sense—and ‘diffusion of responsibility’ has little to do with it. The fantasies of many martial artists aside, to go unarmed against a person with a knife is to put oneself in very real peril, regardless of one’s training. The same can be said of attacks involving multiple assailants. A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of Seal Team Six, can reasonably expect to prevail over more than one determined attacker at a time. A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive. Who could be nostalgic for such a world?”
A person’s right to defend themself became personal for me after my girlfriend and I moved to the Capitol Hill neighborhood near downtown Denver. Cap Hill, like most other urban areas, is made up of safe, well-off areas and poor, not-so-safe areas. The naive and relatively poor newcomers that we were, we ended up in a studio apartment in one of the not-so-safe areas. It was here that she and I learned what it was like to live somewhere that you felt unsafe, even inside our own home.
As it turns out, Cap Hill has a sizable homeless population, and the alley immediately outside our first-floor apartment was a frequent resting place for homeless individuals. While I would hope that this goes without saying, I’m going to state explicitly that I feel great compassion for homeless people. At various points in my life, I have volunteered in soup kitchens, distributed health and wellness goodybags, and even made arrangements with a local bagel shop to collect their excess food at the end of each day so that I could donate it to homeless shelters. Homelessness is a serious problem that I am personally invested in helping to solve.
That being said, it is difficult to feel safe when there are unknown people sleeping, shouting, or doing drugs directly outside your shoulder-height bedroom window. Making matters worse, the apartment didn’t have air conditioning and our unit was directly above the building’s boiler room, putting us in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between opening the windows (to avoid melting) or locking them to feel protected. Even with the windows closed, it was common for my girlfriend and I to go to sleep at night worrying whether someone might be bold enough to try and climb in.
Several times, this fear manifested itself for me in nightmares about someone entering our apartment while we were sleeping. I felt especially anxious when I left my girlfriend alone at the apartment for a few days while I traveled out of state to visit family. I worried for her safety, because I knew that if someone did break into the apartment at night, she would have no reliable means of defending herself.
In the end, no one actually tried to break into our apartment, and we were able to move somewhere much more secure at the end of our lease. However, not everyone is so lucky. Undoubtedly, some readers know all too well what it feels like to be unsafe, and many have no doubt felt it in much greater measure than I. But if you are someone who has never known what it is like to feel vulnerable, to feel like you could face a threat at any moment, I invite you to try and imagine yourself in such a situation. Then, I’d like you to ask yourself if it is unreasonable that some people might want to have a means of defending themselves beyond calling 911 and hoping that the police arrive in time.
If having participated in that thought experiment, you are not at all sympathetic to the view that a firearm is uniquely valuable as a self-defense tool, the most valuable self-defense tool in all of human history, then it will be very difficult for you to participate in the gun debate in a productive manner. This is not to say that you do not have a right to express your views that guns are simply too dangerous to be owned by private citizens—or that the societal costs outweigh the individual benefits—but you will soon find that your desire for an outright ban on firearms is wishful thinking.
Fact #3: Banning all firearms is not realistic in the United States, neither politically nor practically.
There are approximately 400 million firearms in the United States. That’s something like 1.2 firearms per person. Of course, not everyone owns a firearm. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, all of the guns are owned by about 43 percent of households, which means that the average gun-owning household has about 8 guns. (It should be pointed out that even this number is deceptive, because there is likely a large number of households that own just one firearm; and there are other firearm enthusiasts that have sizable collections.)
By global standards, the number of guns in the United States is extraordinary. Per the Washington Post, “In 2017…Americans made up 4 percent of the world’s population but owned about 46 percent of the entire global stock of 857 million civilian firearms.”
These statistics add credibility to gun control activists’ concerns about the state of guns in the United States, because they suggest that Americans, for whatever reason, have a unique affinity, bordering on an obsession, with guns. Given the carnage that bad people with guns are capable of producing, why would we allow them in our country?
Paradoxically, however, the astounding number of civilian-owned firearms in the United States also highlights the impracticality of removing all civilian-owned guns, which poses problems for gun control advocates, particularly those who would like to see firearms banned altogether.
The obvious hurdle to a firearm ban is the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 gives individual citizens the right to gun ownership. Given this precedent, a ban on civilian-owned firearms would likely require a Constitutional amendment, which is, by design, an arduous and generally impractical process.
Even if you were tempted to try and repeal the Second Amendment, you’d be met by fierce opposition by the bulk of the U.S. population. According to Gallup, over 70 percent of Americans surveyed said that they would not support a law banning civilian-owned handguns. The number who would support a ban on semi-automatic rifles, so called “assault rifles”, is significantly higher (40 percent), but a sizable majority of survey respondents (57 percent) still opposed such a law.
Putting the political challenges aside, there are also practical obstacles to a firearm ban. For starters, how the hell do you actually take away people’s guns? The most common answer is through gun buyback programs, in which police stations, churches, or volunteer organizations offer gun owners cash or gift cards in exchange for their unwanted firearms. At the average buyback, a small handgun can be redeemed for $25, while a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 goes for something like $200.
The stated goal of these projects is to reduce the number of firearms in circulation and to give gun owners who no longer want their firearms a means of safely disposing of them. These are perfectly reasonable goals, and I’m glad such a service exists for the people who feel personally compelled to participate in them. But the idea of implementing a national, compulsory buyback program is beyond unrealistic. If the Federal government mandated individuals to give up their guns in such a manner, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that there would be rioting in the streets. Some particularly motivated individuals would likely barricade themselves inside their home: “If the government wants my guns, then they’ll have to take them by force.”
The pseudo-apocalyptic scenario I’m describing is of course a by-product of the fact that firearm bans are politically unpopular. But even if, for the sake of arguments, a firearm ban were put into place, the people who are most likely to turn in their guns would be law-abiding gun owners who are, by definition, not the problem with regard to gun violence. But gun-owning criminals, who already defy the law and have no meaningful incentive to turn in their weapons.
This last point is one that often draws eyerolls from gun control activists, but I fail to see why. With 400 million firearms in the United States, you don’t think criminals would find a way to get a gun if they wanted to? This is wishful thinking.
Taking firearms away from responsible gun-owners does no one any good. Some extreme gun activists might argue that even this is desirable, because it will reduce the frequency injuries or deaths from accidental firings. As Sam Harris writes, It’s a ridiculous argument. It is possible t
Many on the right suspect that the end-goal for liberals is to ban all guns in the United States. This isn’t something most leftists will readily admit to, instead opting for vagaries like “common sense” gun legislation. But people on the right are in an uncomfortable position because the actual boundaries between semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 and your average semi-automatic handgun are not that meaningful.
Yes, there are undoubtedly some situations in which a person armed with an AR-15 would be able to kill more people than a person armed with a handgun. But a person armed with a handgun can still do a hell of a lot of damage, and as Sam Harris argues, there are also situations in which it might be easier to disarm a shooter using an AR-15 than one using handguns (due to the longer barrel of the rifle).
But maybe you don’t have to ban firearms altogether. Some firearms, like the famous (or infamous) AR-15 are uniquely effective killing machines, right? Surely, taking just these firearms out of circulation would be a positive step…
Fact #4: The Majority of Gun Violence is Committed With Handguns
This is one of the unfortunate realities of gun violence, particularly for those in favor of greater gun control: gun violence is overwhelmingly committed with handguns, not with shotguns, and not with so-called “assault rifles”. According to the FBI’s 2017 crime statistics, there were 403 murder victims who are known to have been shot with a rifle. The number of victims who were killed by handguns? 7,032. For anyone trying to do the math in their head, that’s 17 times as many.
(Given the “Firearms, type not stated” row, the actual number of people killed by rifles is larger than the known 403, but there isn’t any reason to assume that the ratio between handgun victims and rifle victims would change dramatically with more detailed reporting.)
If you want to ban “assault weapons” for whatever reason, that’s fine; but be honest with people about how this will not really be a meaningful step toward reducing gun violence.
Fact #5: Mass Shootings Account For a Tiny Percentage of All Gun Violence
Fact #6: Many Gun Control Measures have Questionable Efficacy
A recurring theme throughout this piece has been that a lot of “common sense” gun legislation simply does not actually reduce gun violence.
I understand that many of you having read this will point out that