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Is Gun Control the Elephant in the CT Room?

January 10, 2011

I don’t think anyone needs reminding about the awful, tragic events this Saturday that severely wounded Representative Giffords, killed a federal judge and inflicted over a dozen other casualties. Similarly, based on the evidence at hand today, it’s pretty obvious the primary political motivations of the shooter, to the extent the motivations were political at all, were the product of incoherent amalgamation of fringe thought.

Nevertheless, the ability of an individual with a handgun, whatever the motivation, to commit what is essentially an act of political terrorism, is disturbing. To this effect, some debate has surfaced about whether gun control – the kind that would keep firearms out of the hands of terrorists and madmen – should play a broader role in our conception of counter-terrorism.

I have several problems with the argument, if not the actual policies recommended. First of all, it is obvious that the government should do the simple work of keeping known or suspected terrorists from buying guns – but the efficacy of such a policy, like that of our highly expensive (and mostly ineffective) airport security, is quite dubious. There is a difference between preventing hypothetical cases of terrorism and actually preventing terrorism.

For one thing, our ability to keep terrorists from buying guns is only as good as our abilities to identify terrorists and communicate with the necessary organs of the law enforcement apparatus to interdict their activities. For example, does this sound like a gun control problem, or a bureaucratic intelligence coordination problem:

Disturbingly, the FBI had previously investigated Hasan for his ties to a radical cleric in Yemen. But, when he purchased his firearm in August 2009 from Guns Galore, a licensed shop in Killeen, Texas, his information was not shared with the federal joint terrorism task force that had him under prior watch. Instead, Hasan was able to purchase the weapon he would use in the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11.

The limiting factor in terrorist attacks is not their access to means, it is our ability to discern intentions and plot before the attack is underway. To the extent we can do that, an attack can be interdicted – which often occurs before the means for the attack are even acquired. Making gun control a major plank of homeland security strategy is just another example of security theater. To keep the weapons from being sold, we would already have to know the person purchasing is on the list – which begs the question, why are we waiting for them to just go and buy the gun in the first place, if we already have them on a watch list? Of course the situation is more complicated than that, but it does illuminate that beyond anything else, the primary concentration of law enforcement counter terrorism belongs to intelligence and making that intelligence useful within the bureaucratic confines of the law enforcement apparatus itself.

Gun control legislation will have a minimal impact  on the amount and the efficacy of successful acts of terror within the United States. Terrorists will always be able to get access to some sort of means, including firearms. The number of firearms available in the United States is enormous, and gun control legislation will not significantly change the amount available to potential terrorists. The idea that gun control could prevent the next Mumbai is particularly misleading. A group as well-coordinated as those who devastated Mumbai in 2008 would not need to rely on Texas gun stores to acquire their weapons, nor would they choose to. The fully automatic weapons and grenades were not bought at Indian gun stores (nor could they be), they were acquired through illicit markets. Fully automatic weapons are nowhere near as easy to acquire (legally) as handguns, and grenades are not legally available. The number of killed and injured in Mumbai on 11/26, and the amount of damage, physical and psychological, dwarfs that of any massacre in the US with legally acquired semi-automatic weapons, handguns or otherwise. Legal gun controls are not going to stop the next Mumbai, intelligence to intercept a tactically intricate and logistically complex group of plotters will. As for the lone gunmen, like Hasan and Loughner? The reality is that again, the gun control is only as good as the intelligence, and most of it is already in place.

Does gun availability really have a major role in determining US susceptibility to terrorism? I doubt it. The US has 90 firearms per 1000 people, compared to the next highest country, Yemen, which supposedly has about 60 per person. Yemen is in the midst of various internal conflicts, including one with AQAP. If the availability of guns was really the limiting factor on terrorist attacks in the US, we should be experiencing far, far more political gun violence than we currently do. It would take an enormous, culture and nation changing overhaul of American gun laws, far beyond the jurisdiction any counter-terror campaign merits, to make guns so unavailable to terrorists in the US that they have a significant impact on the amount of political terrorism that involves gun violence.

Should the tragic shooting in Tuscon cause us to focus on the availability of guns in the United States as a terrorist issue? No. Should we take notice and adjust laws within reason? Yes. Does that mean we should make gun control a key pillar of counter-terrorism? Absolutely not.

That massacre is a reflection on a tragic probability – that unhinged people determined to do violence can elude societal control. The anti-terror gun control legislation being discussed would not have saved anyone on Saturday, just as it would not have saved John F. Kennedy. As hard as it is to accept, history is littered with instances when lone madmen can and do commit wanton murder.

There are many eminently sensible reasons to pursue more effective gun control legislation in the United States, and one of the main reasons standing in the way of it is the US gun culture and the political forces it enables. But counter-terrorism is not one of those reasons, and counter-terrorism will not sway that culture or its lobbies – if anything it will enable them. It is better, both empirically and normatively, to separate terrorism from the broader gun control debate. Connecting existing terror watch lists to gun purchase is ultimately a minor bullet point in a long list of counter-terror measures, and it should not be taken much beyond that for reasons of political security, at least.

It should already be clear that gun control, barring enormous changes that the amount of actual or potential gun-related terror in the US could not solely justify, will not influence the amount of terrorism in the US – much like many other anti-terror security measures, which similarly ought to be pared down. But perhaps some already favorably inclined go gun control might ask, why not throw in the counter-terror argument?

Because not only will this argument fail to sway anyone, it will actually give  the anti-gun control lobby an enormous political gift. The kind of people who fear the Feds in black helicopters coming to take away their guns and swear by the NRA thrive on arguments that gun-owners are victims of an arbitrary and tyrannical government which uses specious justifications to bypass the feelings of “real Americans” towards firearms will be, literally, up in arms, once they hear that their Second Amendment is coming under scrutiny for counter-terrorist purposes. Perhaps a concerted bid to align the causes of major gun control reforms and counter-terror will get more Second Amendment rights advocates to recognize the terrible damage the War on Terror has already wrought on the First, Fourth, and Fifth. It will not, however, do much (if anything) to reduce political gun violence. What resources we already have for counter-terror should be focused primarily on intelligence, and not encouraging more “preventative measures” that mistake security theater for security.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2011 11:59 am

    I agree that the case for stricter gun control should not be framed in counter-terrorist terms and also that stronger gun control measures are not going to prevent a Mumbai-style attack. However, the Tucson case is quite different from Mumbai, obviously, and as someone pointed out elsewhere, the chances of this kind of assault in e.g. the UK, while not zero of course, are lower because guns are much less readily available. So if the Tucson shooting is thought of not primarily as an act of political terrorism but as the action of a mentally ill young man who was able to walk into a gun store and buy a Glock pistol without much trouble, the case perhaps looks different. The real obstacle, as you suggest, is the ‘culture’ of certain states in the US, including Arizona, in which the buying and carrying of guns is something that a fair number of people do and is considered both a right and, to some extent, a normal part of living there.

    • January 14, 2011 1:19 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that certainly such acts are more likely in the United States than in other developed countries. Where I tend to part ways with other proponents of gun controls, I suppose, is that I do not think that this problem can be “solved” ultimately through law.

      One of the things that especially bothered me in the deluge of gun control related articles which emerged after the massacre was the idea that a handgun had no value as a self-defense or sporting weapon, and therefore should not be legally available to the average citizen. Now, leaving aside the technical question of whether or not it was the handgun or the (previously banned) extended magazine that pushes a Glock 9mm from a tool of self defense to an instrument useful only for mass killing, is the huge cultural divergence over gun control issues, and how tenuous the relationship to the 2nd Amendment itself is.

      Many gun control advocates have an idea that only individual self defense weapons and sporting weapons should be legal, and that the Constitution basically permits this. The problem is that the text and the intention of the 2nd amendment have virtually nothing to do with this, the 2nd amendment is about moderating centralized government’s monopoly on force and delegating some aspect of it to the populace, and it deals primarily with weapons useful for killing other people, in particular, soldiers or combatants.

      But obviously neither the pro or anti gun control crowds frame it this way, because it’s become essentially a cultural argument – enough so that I don’t think any amount of legislation will change the interpretation of the 2nd amendment as a principle giving individual citizens the right to purchase weapons designed for killing other people to anything resembling the British or European position, so you’d need to change the 2nd amendment to make it explicitly about the National Guard and/or sporting weapons – but that itself would require an enormous cultural shift which takes more than policymakers to engineer.

      Perhaps I’m simply too uncommitted or pessimistic. But something that’s struck me recently is that the liberal philosophies the US is founded upon often talked about America as being in a state of nature. In some abstract or elemental way, there’s still this connection to violence and anarchy in America’s original political principles that may not be fully separable from our broader political outlook.

      • January 14, 2011 2:51 pm

        I understand your point about the Second Amendment, though I’m not sure I agree with it as a matter of constitutional interpretation; I don’t know enough about the 2nd Amendment to have a serious discussion of this.

        If there is some deep or elemental strain of violence in U.S. political culture, I would say it likely owes more to the violent westward expansion of the U.S. (including mass displacement and murder of the native population, Mexican war, not to mention the violence that accompanied slavery, etc.), along with the lingering influence of the rugged-individualist frontier ethos, than to the founding principles, though I could be wrong about this. If Locke (or whoever) referred to what would become the U.S. as being in a state of nature, this I would think reflected either a willful ignorance of the fact that the territory was already inhabited, or a judgment that the native inhabitants were not ‘civilized’, or an inconsistent mixture of the two. Did Locke read Vitoria’s ‘On the American Indians’? Well, my typing is very much outrunning my knowledge here, so I better stop.

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