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If gun control arguments make me want to shoot myself, does that just prove their point? - Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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If gun control arguments make me want to shoot myself, does that just prove their point? [Dec. 22nd, 2012|02:06 am]
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[Epistemic Status | Not sure of this issue, but pretty sure other people should be less sure than they are, if that makes sense. Also, important to note that I'm not angry at any particular people over this and don't mean any personal insults, just angry at the entire trend. This was heavily edited, so comments may not refer to the current version.]

I have tried to be good.

I have tried not to talk about politics on Facebook, because that's not the place for it, and it only annoys people, and it's not what people want to hear about right after a terrible disaster.

No one else has tried this, and so every day I have to scroll through half a dozen image macros and catchy slogans, almost all of which are calls to action for more gun control.

Except they're never just "I think we need more gun control". It's always "Anyone who doesn't want gun control has been brainwashed by the NRA and thinks school shootings are great." I am constantly amazed by how small a buffer the average person has between "I don't believe X" and "Believing X is irredeemably evil and we must mock and shame it until the very possibility of expressing it is beyond the pale".

This makes me upset. It's not that I think the pro-gunners are totally right and the anti-gunners are totally wrong (or vice versa). It's more that I think the issue is sufficiently nuanced and complicated that catchy slogans and image macros mocking anyone who disagrees is the wrong way to go about discussing it.

I realize I have to support this position, to prove that it's not as obvious as it sounds. And I plan to do that, but first I want to talk about the Principle of Symmetry.

The Principle of Symmetry is thinking before you say something to see if there is a perfectly symmetrical argument you disagree with. For example, here's something I'm sort of patching together from various things my friends actually said:
I'm mad as hell about this. After every one of these massacres, people keep suggesting stricter gun laws, and it keeps on getting shot down by the same old conservative lobby groups. Apparently they think that their "right" to own a hunting rifle is more important than kids not being murdered. And then people dare accuse *us* of politicizing the tragedy when we bring up the issue!

Okay. It seems reasonable. But now imagine you knew people on the right-wing, and you went on Facebook and you saw thirty posts that looked like this:
I'm mad as hell about this. After every one of these massacres, people keep suggesting that we bring back prayer in school, and it keeps on getting shot down by the same old liberal lobby groups. Apparently they think that somehow their "right" to avoid anything that smacks of religion is more important than kids not being murdered. And then people dare accuse *us* of politicizing the tragedy when we bring up the issue!

You probably are very good at seeing through the flaws in this second statement. Flaws like: the liberals aren't opposing prayer in school because they don't care about massacres, it's because they honestly don't believe that's the right solution. Or that it's unfair to cast the liberals as stodgy obstructionists, because it's not obvious that the thing they're obstructing really ought to go through. Or that if you're not the sort of person for whom shooting -> prayer in school is an obvious and desirable policy, it definitely looks like they're trying to politicize the issue, even if they include the sentence "This isn't about politicizing the issue."

The Principle of Symmetry says you should try the much less natural task of applying these insights to your own thought processes and the arguments of your own side; that they apply just as well to the first argument as to the second.

It would seem that a lot of the difference in reaction comes from differences in whether you think gun control vs. school prayer would work; that is, whether you get to call people pushing a solution "offensive", or people refusing to support a solution "stubborn" or "callous" is totally a function of how effective you think the solution is. So if I haven't already lost your interest, let me analyze a couple of the arguments that keep showing up on my Facebook page so maybe people will stop using them.

1. "Why is it that someone in America is more than twice as likely to die from gun violence than someone in Serbia? Five times more likely to die from a gun death than someone in Israel? Forty times more likely to die than someone in England?"

So first of all, "gun violence" is the wrong category to use here.

Suppose that you went to your doctor and said "I keep having headaches in my bed at night."

Your doctor says "You should sleep on the couch".

You ask your doctor "And that will solve my problem of having headaches?"

Your doctor says "No, it will solve your problem of having headaches in your bed."

This is a bad solution, because although the problem was phrased as "I have headaches in my bed", the real problem is just headaches. If we get rid of bed headaches at the cost of causing exactly the same number of couch headaches, that's completely useless.

"Gun violence" is a category much like "bed headaches". Some criminologists very reasonably propose a "substitution effect" - that is, if someone wants to commit murder, they'll use the most convenient weapon they can get your hands on. If that weapon gets banned, they will substitute the next most convenient weapon, and so on, rather than just deciding not to commit any more murders.

So suppose there were 10,000 gun deaths in the United States. The government bans guns, it is miraculously successful, and gun deaths go down to zero. Sadly, by a total coincidence there are also 10,000 more knife deaths.

This would not be a good outcome, but if we're looking at "gun violence", we could hail it as a victory: "Gun control reduced gun violence levels to zero! Our plan has worked! Hooray!"

So if we actually want to look at effectiveness of policies, we need to be measuring something else, like the total homicide rate. This is one of several reasons graphs like this don't really impress me much.

On first glance, this seems to also be a victory for the gun control advocates; the US's total homicide rate is about five times that of the UK - a far cry from the 40x higher firearm homicide rate, but still extremely bad. Can that difference of 5x be due to the UK's stricter gun control laws?

No, not all of it. We find that the US' non-firearm homicide rate is still 1.5x the UK's total homicide rate. That is, you're more likely to get stabbed with a knife (or something) in the US than you are to be killed by any method, knife or gun, in the UK.

The conclusion is that for some reason that has nothing to do with weapons, Americans are much more violent than the British. With this data alone, we have no way to determine whether Americans are 1.5x more violent than the British (and the rest of the difference is due to Britain's better gun control laws) or Americans are 5x more violent than the British (and gun control laws have no effect whatsoever except shifting some of Britain's potential gun crime into knife crime)

Luckily we don't have to use that data alone. We have this thing called Science! Where we try to adjust for confounders and do good studies comparing like to like! It's really neat! People should pay attention to it sometime!

Probably the biggest name in the study of this field is Swiss criminologist Martin Killias, whose 1993 paper examined 21 countries and found that gun control had a large effect on gun violence and a smaller but still significant effect on total homicide. However, in 2001 Killias expanded his study to more countries and got better data and found the opposite: that there was no significant effect on total homicide. Studies in the US have generally found the same effect - one big one in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology by controversial criminologist Gary Kleck concluded that "gun prevalence levels generally have no net positive effect on total violence rates [although] homicide, gun assault, and rape rates increase gun prevalence" and went on to say that "of 108 assessments of effects of different gun laws on different types of violence, 7 indicated good support, and another 11 partial support, for the hypothesis of gun control efficacy."

A more recent study in this genre is Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder And Suicide in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, which in a nice touch was written by a liberal and conservative working together. They analyze data across various European countries and conclude by saying (actually quoting another person who had the same finding):
If you are surprised by our findings, so are we. We did not begin this report with any intent to "exonerate" handguns, but there it is - a negative finding, to be sure, but a negative finding is nevertheless a positive contribution."

Judging by the Kleck story above, Kilias' change of heart, and these researchers' testimony here, it looks like a pattern: scientists going in with the intention of proving guns are bad, and reluctantly and annoyedly having to change their minds and admit they aren't. I sympathize because this happened to me the first time I looked into this research ten years ago or so; I was as anti-gun as anyone else, and grudgingly had to admit that the science just didn't bear it out.

I know that social science findings are always tentative and uncertain. But compared to the medical questions I'm usually researching, this one just seems so much clearer. I can't even find good studies by respected researchers who have concluded that in general there's good evidence for gun control working, even though there's more than ample data and you would think the liberal think tanks would be all over this. It's that bad.

(one commenter has added a caveat: in 1996, Congress banned the CDC and other government agencies from studying this topic out of fear that it would be politicized. That means there's not as much data as there could be. There are still hundreds of private studies, though, so my conclusion stands.)

2. "How many kids have to die before people say 'we want less guns, not more'?"

The above is a direct quote from Piers Morgan. And the first problem with it is that people should be saying "We want fewer guns, not more." "Less" is only used for uncountable nouns.

The second problem is that by now hopefully you are suspicious of how the statement assumes that banning guns must be the solution (compare "How many kids have to die before you agree to allow prayer in school?"). But there's another important issue here as well.

It is extremely sad whenever there is a massacre of innocent people, but...well...there's no politically correct way to say this...let's try Principle of Symmetry again.

Okay, you remember the last terrorist attack? And how people wanted to do everything right now to make sure that it would never happen again? And you, as a reasonable sane liberal, pointed out that terrorist attacks killed fewer people than lightning bolts or meteor strikes or whatever, and you laughed at the naivete of people who were demanding a War On Terror rather than a War On Lightning just because they were gullible and the media had whipped them into a panic?

And you remember how it wasn't because you were laughing at the grief of terrorist victims, or didn't care, so much as it was that you didn't see why terrorism got such a privileged place in the national consciousness over meteor strikes or traffic fatalities or whatever else?

So on average since the year 2000, about 8 American children a year have died in school shootings. Yes, this is eight too many. But by comparison, 10 per year die in high school football and 150 per year drown in swimming pools.

(for comparison, 300 people a year die in terrorist attacks, although that's mostly 9-11 averaged over a decade.)

Of course, "other things kill even more people" is not an argument against trying to prevent a particular deadly problem. But let's forget about guns as self-defense for a moment and pretend the only reason people want guns is to do shooting sports. In that case, the gun control question boils down to "Is it worth letting some people engage in a sport they like if it results in people dying?"

If the death toll from school shootings bothers you, the death toll from pool drownings should bother you just under twenty times as much. If school shootings make you want to ban guns, then pool drownings should make you want to ban swimming pools. The government could do that. It would definitely save over a hundred kids a year. But if you think "I like swimming, and it's horrible to say we have to get rid of this entire sport beloved by millions just because some idiots forget to cover their pools when there are little kids around", then have a little bit of sympathy for gun owners trying to make the same argument for the sport they like.

And of course all this only applies to school shootings. Total gun deaths are two orders of magnitude worse than pool drowning (although still not as bad as traffic accident deaths).

But if you agree with the all the evidence showing that gun control doesn't affect gun violence in general, you might still be tempted to say "Well, it's a lot harder to kill 25 people in a bloody rampage with a knife" (although the Chinese seem to be trying their best). You might try to retreat from the general problem of violence to the more specific problem of school shootings. But if that's going to be your entire justification, you need to square that with a death rate of about 5% that of swimming pools.

3. "The Second Amendment obviously was meant only to apply to militias. The modern reading is a bizarre reinterpretation pushed by the National Rifle Association that overturned centuries of scholarship."

This is being pushed by Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker [EDIT: a commenter points out this may not quite be Toobin's point] but as far as I can tell it is relatively easily demolished by looking up what the Founders actually said. Language Log has a good article on this - search this essay for "Pennsylvania". The summary is that one of the major drafters of the Constitution, James Wilson, had previously written the Pennsylvania Constitution which included a similar but clearer version: "The right of the citizens to bear arms in the defence of themselves shall not be questioned."

So why the confusion in the federal version? Commenter dk proposes the intriguing idea that the Founders disagreed on this and wrote the current compromise as an intentionally ambiguous way of letting posterity solve their problem for them.

Speaking of Language Log, see their piece on the ablative absolute in the 2nd amendment. It has nothing to do with politics, but grammar is still pretty interesting. If I ever write a constitution, I think it's going to include the phrase "The gestation period of some species of sloth being almost twelve months, the people shall have full freedom of religion" just to see what legal scholars do.

4. "It's delusional to want guns as protection against a tyrannical government. Haven't you noticed your government has fighter jets and tanks?"

Or in the form of an image macro that actually showed up on my Facebook (again to prove I'm not straw-manning):

I'll just answer this one by mentioning that Bashar al-Assad also has fighter jets and tanks. Ask how that's been working out for him.

5. "The NRA thinks we need MORE guns now! Can you believe the kind of twisted thinking it would take to suggest that could possibly help?!"

Actually, thus far two school shootings (Pearl High School, Appalachia Law School) as well as two other massacres (a Muskegon Michigan store and a Colorado church) have been stopped when one of the would-be victims turned out to be carrying a gun and shot the perpetrator (though see this comment).

Conclusions and Exasperations

A friend recently linked me to an article with the lovely name The Conservative Philosophy of Tragedy, which contained the following mind-boggling quote:
Time and again, though, the pro-gun right's answer is the same: people will find a way to kill, and violence is inevitable, so taking away guns won't work. Their solution seems to be a society where every citizen has a gun in one hand and crossed fingers on the other.

That perspective represents not just an intense cultural tie to guns, but a typically conservative view of humanity: people (other than me) are fundamentally bad and our time on Earth is in preparation for the afterlife, so why worry about making it better?

If the stupidity of this piece doesn't make you gape open-mouthed in shock, let's apply the same Principle of Symmetry as before:
Time and again, though, the pro-media-violence left's answer is the same: people will find a reason to kill, and violence is inevitable, so banning violent video games won't work. Their solution seems to be a society where every citizen has a copy of Grand Theft Auto in one hand and crossed fingers on the other.

That perspective represents not just an intense cultural tie to violent media, but a typically liberal view of humanity: people (other than me) are fundamentally bad and America is an evil colonialist oppressor, so why worry about making it better?

Or maybe liberals just honestly don't think banning violent video games is the answer.

People have this thing going on where they skip the step of figuring out whether they're right or not, and go straight to the step of demonizing anyone who doesn't agree that they are right. It's incredibly annoying and they seem to be totally unaware that they're doing it. Like if an average liberal saw the violent video game version of that article, they would immediately say "This is stupid, you can't go off onto bizarre sociological speculation about our intrinsic motives for not acknowledging that video games are evil before you've really shown video games are evil", but when a liberal does the exact same thing to conservatives, they just nod their head and say "Yes, this person really is worthy of mockery and demonization."

There are two problems with mockery. The first is that it makes the debate more extreme: gun owners are stupid and evil, not reasonable people to be compromised with. That means that what might be the most practical solutions, measures that stop short of banning all guns but which ban certain types of weapons or make them harder to get, become impossible because the gun owners become an inhuman enemy with whom no compromise is acceptable.

The other problem with mockery is that a good mock, like the image macros above, takes three seconds to write or read, and an hour to rebut correctly. As someone (can't remember who) once said, the goal of debate isn't to craft an argument your opponent can't refute, it's to craft an argument your opponent can't refute quickly. Since your opponent doesn't have an infinite amount of time, she just gives up and you win. Or if your opponent does have the time, maybe your audience won't have the attention span.

I'm kind of worried that Internet political arguers exploit this by going for a sort of Gish Gallop, where they throw out so much low-effort crap that the few people who disagree with them have no choice but to let it pass.

So this post is a conscious attempt to spend an (almost) infinite amount of time refuting your dumb image macros. It is basically a plea to show that another side to this argument is possible. It is not so obvious that a single sneering slogan on Facebook about how dumb the other side is serves to do anything but make you look dumb yourself and lower the quality of the discourse. With a few exceptions, this will also be true of the next argument you feel tempted to reduce to a sneering slogan on Facebook. Leave the arguments to people with data, and leave Facebook for its intended purpose of stalking people.

[EDIT: Now the conservative image macros have started to show up on my wall. I don't have enough time to rebut them fully, but please be aware you are also annoying and need to stop.]

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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-22 10:52 am (UTC)
Thanks. The Facebook post I got the graph from didn't cite a source, so it's good to see that it's from someone legitimate. It's also good to see he answers my "Where's Britain" and my cherry-picking objections, and that a fit remains even when you take out the outlying US.

I do still have two more fundamental objections. The first remains that restricting it to "gun deaths" unfairly sidesteps the substitution argument. The second is that once again it total fails to provide causal information: it's possible that homicide causes gun ownership (because people want to protect themselves; apparently gun sales rise after every big massacre story on the news) or that they're both caused by some third factor (like violentness of the population)
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-12-22 10:57 am (UTC)
One more angle on serious gun control: Considering how many Americans really want to own guns, it's plausible that it will look something like Prohibition and the war on drugs. Incarceration is expensive-- not just the direct cost of imprisoning people, but the disruption to their families and that they much less able to do useful work. Also, guns being illegal means a larger black market, which I'd say increases the odds of violent disputes over territory.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-12-22 07:24 pm (UTC)
It also would force people into terrible choices between protecting their lives and obeying the law. It is not irrelevant to this that most of those supporting gun control tend to be higher-income people who would rarely if ever find themselves in a situation where they might need a gun to protect themselves: they live in neighborhoods where violent crime is very rare. When one looks at it from the viewpoint of, say, the shopkeeper in an inner-city slum, it becomes obvious that gun control directly threatens his life.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 11:25 am (UTC)
The Newtown shooting is exceptional in that it couldn't have been prevented by allowing the victims to arm themselves, since, y'know, kids. This convinced a few pro-gun-rights people I know (such as Cliff Pervocracy) to change their minds. I'm not sure how shooters respond to incentives, but if potential adult victims are better armed, they might just shoot more kids.

Mass shootings do kill few people, but aren't they becoming more frequent? I can't find two sources that agree on what counts as a mass shooting, let alone on long-term trends.

"If someone wants to kill they will" is clearly false. Even neglecting the psychological aspect, someone can kill many more people with a gun than with a knife before being stopped.

What is completely missing from coverage is any attempt to understand the motives for shootings. (Not counting diagnosing the dead with random unpopular psychiatric disorders.) That's odd; isn't it a prerequisite for prevention? This shooting in particular confuses me - I thought I had a decent model, but it definitely doesn't predict elementary school massacres.
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-12-22 02:24 pm (UTC)
More frequent = really rare. Also, *are* they more frequent, or are they being reported on more this year? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/dark-knight-shooting_n_1689505.html?1342809145 says about 20 shootings a year (and 160ish deaths a year). I haven't even heard about 20 shootings *this* year, let alone every preceding year.

"someone can kill many more people with a gun than with a knife before being stopped."

In a sense, yeah, and it's hard to get to the 20+ body count level. But that's very rare even with guns; Sandy is one of the biggest mass shootings ever. Killing 4-8 people and wounding many more isn't unusual with a knife, or even driving a car into a crowd, and those are more typical shooting numbers too.
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[User Picture]From: naath
2012-12-22 11:56 am (UTC)
I worry more about lack of gun-control leading to more *accidental* gun deaths - in England if you have a gun and keep it at home you have to lock it up in a special gun cabinet and lock the ammunition (or powder, if like everyone I know with a gun it's a mediaeval replica) separately. No "oops little Timmy got the gun" or "bugger shot myself with the gun I keep under the pillow".

Also I don't buy the argument that arming people would prevent them being shot. Look at the various "green on blue" attacks in places like Camp Bastion - LOADS of "good guys with guns" can't prevent "bad guys with guns" killing people, just maybe reduce the numbers a bit.
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-12-22 02:24 pm (UTC)
There's not that many accidental deaths. 600 in the US in 2010. A lot more than mass shootings, but gun murders are 11,000.

What's wrong with reducing the numbers killed? And Camp Bastion? A sneak night attack with RPGs doesn't seem relevant to American life:
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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-12-22 01:16 pm (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 04:17 pm (UTC)
The image is at http://raikoth.net/Stuff/blog/gun_fatalities.png
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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-12-22 01:30 pm (UTC)
Before you even start talking about how you would change things to reduce the incidence of spree shootings, you are going to have to say something about the biggest elephant: spree shootings are very rare, and nearly all child deaths come from other, much bigger causes, so it's far from clear that this problem deserves more than a mote of our limited time, attention and resources.
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[User Picture]From: estland
2012-12-22 02:00 pm (UTC)
...and you have to be a parent. Really
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 02:36 pm (UTC)
> Wait, isn't using gun-related deaths as the outcome as opposed to homicides in general assuming the conclusion?

No one is arguing that gun control will reduce non-firearm deaths, therefore they're not relevant to arguments of gun control. All including them would do is add even more noise to a sample that's already very tiny and very noisy. (If the argument is that gun control will increase firearm deaths, a better graph to look at would be gun deaths vs. non-gun deaths.)

> School shootings kill fewer people each year than terrorist attacks.

School shootings kill fewer people each year than terrorist attacks, but shootings in general and even just shootings of kids kill far more people than terrorist attacks. Gun control is an attempt to curtail both of these things.

> I will ignore a well-respected historian and Constitutional scholar, because I have Google.

You know how mad someone would be if you were discussing your field of expertise and someone else baldly rejected your arguments this way.

> two school shootings as well as two other massacres have been stopped when one of the would-be victims turned out to be carrying a gun

Funny thing, one of the victims in this school shooting was carrying a gun. Her name was Nancy Lanza, and her guns were stolen from her and then used to kill her and 26 others. Obviously it's possible for an armed victim to stop an armed assailant, but it is not as successful as reported.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 02:37 pm (UTC)
* Erm. Increase non-firearm deaths.
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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-12-22 02:38 pm (UTC)
Also, isn't "No one else has tried this" availability bias?
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-23 12:05 pm (UTC)
Good point.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 02:49 pm (UTC)
My Facebook feed it actually filled with pro-gun memes and messages and links. It's just as ill-informed and annoying.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-23 12:06 pm (UTC)
Really? Do you come from a conservative area, did you go to school at a conservative school, or are we just mysteriously in completely different circles?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 02:55 pm (UTC)

It's symmetry-blindness; symmetry-blindness all the way up.

The sad thing is that it's not just facebook pseudo-intellectuals engaging in these sorts of arguments. Just take a look at this:


Real, credentialed, wikipedia'd academics are doing the same thing. Why is there such a strong emotional reaction from academics? Do they value the harm principle so much that they stop caring about everything else?

It's telling that we don't see similar reactions to the thousands of gun homicides that occur in the inner city. To American Brahmins, these areas just become "bad parts of town" that they never set foot into, so they're both intellectually and physically distanced from the problem. But when a shooting occurs in a suburban, upper-middle-class elementary school, in a rich, white, liberal state... what else could hit closer to home?
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-12-22 04:03 pm (UTC)

Re: It's symmetry-blindness; symmetry-blindness all the way up.c

Crooked Timber is a cesspit of a particular kind of academic-hard-left stupidity that takes many years of postgraduate training, though. They've been egregiously dim pretty much since they started.
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From: siodine
2012-12-22 03:15 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: selenite
2012-12-22 03:33 pm (UTC)
Nice write-up, speaking as a gun-owning Texan. At this point I mostly respond to liberals by offering to take them out to the range so they can learn what a gun is actually like.

If anyone here's in the DFW area the offer's open.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-12-22 03:53 pm (UTC)
Proper population studies are hard, but you can make a surprising amount of headway just using public CDC mortality and FBI violent crime statistics. You will explode in rage once you realize how easy it is, and how reporters and pundits don't bother. Or, anyway, I do.

I was digging in the CDC final mortality report for 2009 the other night and relating the results on Twitter. A few highlights:

-- When a pundit says 'X children and teens die from gun violence', what they don't tell you is that teens between 15 and 17, predominantly male, make up over 80% of that sum.

-- About a third of those deaths are suicides; in the complete absence of firearms, many would certainly use other means.

-- Gun violence is involved in about 3.4% of all deaths of children between 1 and 14. If you include infants, it's much less. Most deaths of children are attributable to accidents, particularly vehicle crashes and drownings.

I could expand on the details if people are interested.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 06:05 pm (UTC)


3.4 percent of children by gun related deaths is still way too high.i am amazed you don't feel so.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-12-22 03:56 pm (UTC)
Man, you're my hero.

(Though I disagree about Facebook not being a good place for politics - I've had lots of great discussions about politics there. And although I know you probably wish I wouldn't post this article on my own FB, but, I'm sorry, this one is just way too great not to be posted.)
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-12-22 04:00 pm (UTC)
"The problem with mockery is that a good mock, like the image macros above, takes three seconds to write or read, and an hour to rebut correctly."

Actually, I've found that demonstrating its invalidility by a plug and chug of terms -- like the one you chose, also takes about three second.
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