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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]
Scott

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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]
Scott
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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.]
linkReply

Comments:
[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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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-12-22 02:26 pm (UTC)
Uh, would you care to advance an argument for this?
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-12-22 02:30 pm (UTC)
Ditto. (Also about the 404.)

Scott, you missed the biggest problem with that firearms deaths graph: it's including suicides. He links to a non-suicide one:
http://tewksburylab.org/?attachment_id=1342
Without the US, it'd be a random scatter plot. With the US, there's essentially two data points: the US and everyone else. Another relevant breakdown would be in gun types, especially handguns vs. long guns.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 02:38 pm (UTC)
Why are suicide deaths not relevant to discussions of gun control?
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-12-22 02:55 pm (UTC)
Because I know of no reason to think that eliminating guns will substantially reduce suicide rates, vs. suicidal people simply finding other means.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-22 03:06 pm (UTC)
As ciphergoth points out below, gun suicides tend to be by far the most successful kind of suicide. Yes, suicidal people would likely try to find other means, but more of them would survive the attempt. <a href='http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Suicide_methods.gif">Have a Wikipedia citation for your trouble, though.</a>
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-12-22 07:32 pm (UTC)
... gun suicides tend to be by far the most successful kind of suicide. Yes, suicidal people would likely try to find other means, but more of them would survive the attempt.

You're assuming that the choice of weapon is not causally linked to the sincerity of the attempt. Remember that - aside from his or her self-destructive tendencies -- a would-be suicide is usually still capable of reason, and may correctly grasp that a gun is one of the most reliable methods of committing suicide. Hence if he or she doesn't truly desire death, a less-reliable (or even usually-unsuccessful) means is more likely to be chosen. Absent guns, the would-be suicide who really wants to die is likely to choose one of the other likely methods -- such as (*consult a book about the manners of the imperial Roman patricians, I'm not going to describe in detail a method that usually works on a public forum, but trust me that when properly prepared, it is usually fatal -- and not very painful, either!*)
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From: captainbooshi
2012-12-22 03:32 pm (UTC)
Just to play Devil's Advocate here, there are several reasons why eliminating guns would substantially reduce suicide rates.

One big reason is how much easier a gun makes suicide, especially if there's already one around the house. There's been a fair amount of research on how much even small barriers will stop someone from committing suicide. Even a small wall, easy to climb over, on a bridge will hugely reduce suicide rates on that bridge.

Another big reason is how effective guns are as a suicide method. They're actually one of the most fail-safe ways at killing yourself. Cutting your wrists, or trying to overdose, are much worse. Jumping from heights is as effective, but I believe I've seen research that significantly more people lose their will when trying to jump against trying to shoot themselves.

The recidivism rate for suicide is not very high. I can't find long-term rates, but the number I'm finding is that about 15% of people will attempt suicide again within 1 year. Pseudo-suicide attempts will make this number less indicative than it would otherwise be, of course, but this still means that lowering the effectiveness of suicide attempts will lower the over rate as well.

To repeat, this is not saying anything about the actual debate of gun control, I just wanted to respond to your specific comment of not seeing how eliminating guns would lower suicide rates.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-12-22 04:00 pm (UTC)
This is confounded by the issue that people choose suicide methods corresponding to their intention--less lethal methods have a strong signalling component.
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From: siodine
2012-12-22 03:36 pm (UTC)
"EK: As I understand it, there’s a stronger link between guns and suicide than between guns and homicide. And one of the really interesting parts of your paper is your recounting of the Israeli military’s effort to cut suicides among soldiers by restricting access to guns.

JR: Yes, it’s very striking. In Israel, it used to be that all soldiers would take the guns home with them. Now they have to leave them on base. Over the years they’ve done this — it began, I think, in 2006 — there’s been a 60 percent decrease in suicide on weekends among IDS soldiers. And it did not correspond to an increase in weekday suicide. People think suicide is an impulse that exists and builds. This shows that doesn’t happen. The impulse to suicide is transitory. Someone with access to a gun at that moment may commit suicide, but if not, they may not."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/mythbusting-israel-and-switzerland-are-not-gun-toting-utopias/

Not terribly strong evidence, obviously. Worth considering.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-12-22 05:22 pm (UTC)
OK, I'm going to back out some numbers here using this article on Israeli suicide rates. I'm going to try to come up with a deliberately high estimate.

Between 1985 and 1997, there were 266 suicides in the 10-19 year old bracket, and 547 in the 20-29 bracket. Let's assume all 10-19 suicides happened at ages 18 and 19, that 20% of the 20-29 suicides happened at age 20, and all Israelis are in the military at ages 18-21. Then there were about 266 + 0.2 x 547 = 375 suicides of Israeli conscripts during that period. Let's add 25% to account for officers and career soldiers; that gives us about 470 suicides over a 13 year period, or 36 suicides a year.

Israel's population is close to double what it was in 1990. So let's say the suicide rate in recent years is about double. That's 72 military suicides a year.

Over the period 2006 to 2010, we would then expect 360 total suicides. Let's say that half of all suicides happen on weekends: 180 suicides. Suppose we see a 60% drop: 108 suicides over five years. That's pretty damned close to statistical noise.

As a check on that, this article and links off it suggest that the yearly suicide rate among Israeli soldiers tends to be in the 20-40 range. Using that as a baseline, the "60 percent decrease in suicide on weekends" starts to look meaningless.


ETA: OK, this and this appear to be basically what I was looking for. First site appears to be a Palestinian propaganda outlet, second is an Israeli suicide hotline. Both appear consistent with the other information.

Edited at 2012-12-22 06:29 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: wight1984
2016-01-10 02:28 am (UTC)
I'm very late to the party on this... but I can fill this gap.

Not only do guns increase the 'completion rate' of suicide attempts... but it's just not true that people will always 'seek alternate means' when lacking an easy and immediate means of committing suicide.

"In London, when sticking one's head in an oven in a coal gas oven was the preferred method of suicide, almost 2,500 people annually took this route. ... The oven-suicide method accounted for half the suicides in the UK. When the British government phased out coal gas for less lethal natural gas ovens, the suicide rate dropped by a third."
...
"Ellington, known as the "suicide bridge" attracted more jumpers. After three people jumped to their deaths in a 10-day period, a suicide barrier was erected. People expected the jumpers to migrate to the Taft bridge to leap, but they didn't. A study conducted five years later that the suicide rate dropped by 50% - the amount that typically jumped from the Ellington Bridge."

Pyschology Today - Can an Obstacle Prevent Suicide?

"if the impulsive suicide attempter tends to reach for whatever means are easy or quick, is it possible that the availability of means can actually spur the act? In looking at suicide’s close cousin, murder, the answer seems obvious. If a man shoots his wife amid a heated argument, we recognize the crucial role played by the gun’s availability. We don’t automatically think, Well, if the gun hadn’t been there, he surely would have strangled her."

NYTimes - The Urge to End it All

[I'm not saying that gun ownership should be illegal... but I do think it is ill-advised.]

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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-12-22 02:45 pm (UTC)
Suicides is definitely a case where firearms control would in many cases simply shift the cause of death. However, it's likely that the biggest positive effect of reducing firearms availability would be a reduction in suicides, because guns are too effective for this purpose; many more people would survive their suicide attempts if they turned to other means.

NB: this comment does not go on to say "...and therefore we should have more gun control".
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-12-22 07:34 pm (UTC)
Indeed, because of the negative effects of gun control, particularly in that gun control increases violent crime.
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