If More People Have Guns, More People will Use Guns—and More People Will Die

We’ve all seen the stories: a father is shot in a movie theater for texting his four-year old daughter, a young man is shot in a car for playing his music too loud, a neighbor shoots two men who are looking over the property that they just purchased.  Yeah, its been that kind of year so far.

There is no chance of these events ever changing anybody’s minds about anything, of course. Our pre-fab narratives are more than capable of accommodating any facts that ever emerge about these shootings. They are the only possible result of conceal-carry laws, or they are statistical anomalies. They would have happened without guns, or they could only happen in a gun culture such as ours. Guns are good. Guns are bad. Communist. Hitler. Baby killer. Second Amendment. Gun nut. Freedom. We all know the moves by heart.

But I want to focus one point in the debate that both sides accept, though in radically different ways—and it is a point with implications that we need to consider. It goes like this: all things being equal, if more people have guns, more people will use guns, and more people will die. This is just how stuff works. You can replace “guns” with just about any consumer product you can think of: children’s aspirin, toilet bowl cleaner, whatever. If more people have it, more people will use it the way it was designed to be used. In one case, this means more clean toilets. In another, it means more dead people, since making people die is what guns (at least the kind you carry in your pocket) are designed to do.

As I said, nobody disagrees with this point, though some people pretend to, and we disagree wildly about what it means. Those who want liberal conceal-carry laws think that more guns will lead to more self-defense which will lead to more dead bad guys. Those who favor gun control believe that more guns will lead to more misuse of guns, which will lead to more dead non-bad guys.

The notion that the Second Amendment requires that we allow anyone to carry any weapon anywhere does not even pass the historical laugh test
Michael Austin
And they are both right. This is just not one of those issues where one side is hopelessly deluded and the other is on the side of the angels. There are dangerous people in the world, and concealed weapons can be, and are used in self-defense. I do not dispute this point.

But the other side is right too. People get in conflicts with other people, some percentage of those conflicts escalate to the point where one person is willing to use violence. This can end in a bloody nose, or a violent shove. Or it can end in death. And the latter becomes much more likely if the person willing to use violence happens to have access to a gun.

There are, therefore, human costs involved with both increasing, and decreasing access to guns. And it means that we all have a stake in how we, as a society, address this issue. The notion that the Second Amendment requires that we allow anyone to carry any weapon anywhere does not even pass the historical laugh test. It has never meant this, nor did its authors ever intend for it to prevent us from doing what they most wanted us to do, which is govern ourselves.

And that means that we are dealing with a tradeoff. Whatever added level of security some people gain by laws that allow more people to carry guns in more places—and to shield them from prosecution when they kill the wrong people—must be balanced against the inevitable increase in fathers killed for texting their children in a movie theater, teenagers killed for playing their music too loud, and  innocent people caught up in the statistically inevitable fact that more people with guns leads to more people using guns, which leads to more people dying.

That’s how tradeoffs work.