The Corner

Frum on Guns, One Last Time

Apologies: When I wrote this post, I was not aware that his full response was already live. I have just a few things to add.

I’ll start with some points of agreement: Like Frum, I’m not a fan of the Tiahrt Amendment, which prohibits the release of data about the stores to which suspected crime guns are traced. There are legitimate concerns about the release of this data, but I think those concerns could be addressed in ways other than keeping the data out of public view. I also agree that gun violence is far too common, though it’s worth bearing in mind that most of it seems to occur between criminals, which raises the question of what it has to do with his original proposal: a surgeon general’s report encouraging decent people not to own guns.

On to the disagreements. Frum claims:

Gun advocates themselves passed a law through Congress almost 20 years ago forbidding the use of federal research dollars to study gun safety. It’s audacious for the people who have done everything in their power to suppress the evidence now to complain about the poor quality of the evidence as exists. Their determination to suppress the evidence is itself the strongest clue as to which way the evidence points.

This is not true. Funding was cut off to specific parts of the federal government, in particular the Centers for Disease Control, for gun research, on the grounds that the CDC had done a hilariously bad job of addressing the topic and is not really a logical choice for such work. No one objects to research in general, and a lot of gun-control research has been conducted in the last 20 years. The (government-funded!) National Academies released a terrific summary of the literature a few years back, and it included a chapter on injury prevention, even though accidents are a tiny proportion of gun deaths. I agree that we could use better surveys and studies on some questions, and I don’t mind the government’s paying for them, but they should be conducted by the census or perhaps the Justice Department, not by “public health” researchers who hate guns. And government research should be considered alongside other work, not accepted as gospel.

As to the rest of his post, I think Frum and I just see risk completely differently. I start with the fact that all products come with tradeoffs — they cost money, they present varying degrees of danger, and these costs must be weighed against any benefits. Even the most regulated products, such as food, sometimes cause death. I believe that people should be free to use risky products so long as they are warned first. And I believe we are far too risk-averse when it comes to things like prescription drugs and vaccines. The government’s only goal seems to be to avoid as many deaths as possible through caution; it does not seem to consider the lives that are lost when crucial medications are tied up for years waiting for approval. And even if a drug fails an analysis that takes these lives into account, people should usually be free to take it anyway at their own risk, in my view.

It’s true that regulators are more accepting of risk with guns than they are with some other products — they don’t take the view that there should be zero accidents, end of story — but I believe the best way to resolve the tension is to deregulate other products, not to require people to buy gun-safety features they do not want in the interest of addressing the 600 fatal gun accidents that occur yearly in a country with around 300 million guns sitting in 40 to 54 million households. If Frum would prefer to take a zero-tolerance approach to the risks of guns while ignoring (or downplaying on cherrypicked evidence) all potential benefits, the way we do with drugs, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

If enough people want features such as chamber-loaded indicators, drop safeties, trigger locks, and personalization, gun companies will offer them. Gun companies do offer many of them. If you want these features, buy them, but don’t force the rest of us to.

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