Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Harm Reduction is not a Caliber

Nicholas Kristof takes a swing at offering less politically divisive suggestions to reduce gun deaths in the US in a feature-length opinion piece at the New York Times.  (Link is a "gift link" so you should be able to read it even without a subscription.) I do not think that he succeeds in avoiding the tired old political mistakes on this issue, but I'd like to assume he is in good faith and make some suggestions.

Kristof's theme is "harm mitigation". He has some thoughts about making it harder to buy guns (licenses, etc.) which I think are a bad idea but will not address here, but I do think there's a point worth keeping in mind from this section: As he notes some people are more likely to misuse guns than others. 72 million Americans own guns. In 2020 there were 45,222 gun deaths (of which more than half were suicides). This means that if each death was caused by a different person (no multiple killing incidents) 0.06% of gun owners were involved in a gun death in 2020.  Out of every ten thousand gun owners, less than six contributed to gun deaths in 2020. So we're dealing with a small percentage of problems among a very large number of law abiding people.

However, he then tried to do some harm mitigation on types of guns. It is a common trope of "reasonable" gun control proposals to argue that some guns are much more dangerous than others, and we only need to ban the dangerous ones. He says:

One advantage of the harm reduction model is that done right, it avoids stigmatizing people as gun nuts and makes firearms less a part of a culture war.

I’m writing this essay on the Oregon farm where I grew up. As I write this, my 12-gauge shotgun is a few feet away, and my .22 rifle is in the next room. (Both are safely stored.)

These are the kinds of firearms that Americans traditionally kept at home, for hunting, plinking or target practice, and the risks are manageable. Rifles are known to have been used in 364 homicides in 2019, and shotguns in 200 homicides. Both were less common homicide weapons than knives and other cutting objects (1,476 homicides) or even hands and feet (600 homicides).

In contrast to a traditional hunting weapon, here’s an AR-15-style rifle. The military versions of these weapons were designed for troops so that they can efficiently kill many people in a short time, and they can be equipped with large magazines that are rapidly swapped out. They fire a bullet each time the trigger is depressed.

 It’s sometimes said that the civilian versions, like the AR-15, are fundamentally different because they don’t have a selector for automatic fire. But troops rarely use automatic fire on military versions of these weapons because they then become inaccurate and burn through ammunition too quickly.

In one respect, the civilian version can be more lethal. American troops are not normally allowed to fire at the enemy with hollow-point bullets, which cause horrific injuries, because these might violate the laws of war. But any civilian can walk into a gun store and buy hollow-point bullets for an AR-15; several mass shootings have involved hollow-point rounds.

Now here’s what in some sense is the most lethal weapon of all: a 9-millimeter handgun. It and other semiautomatic pistols have the advantage of being easily concealable and so are more convenient for criminals than assault rifles are. In addition, there has been a big push toward carrying handguns, concealed or openly — and that, of course, means that increasingly a handgun is readily available when someone is frightened or furious.


Given the difference in impact between long guns and handguns, it may also make sense as a harm reduction measure to advise homeowners to trade in their Glocks for shotguns. As vice president in 2013, Joe Biden encouraged homeowners to rely for self-defense on a shotgun rather than an assault weapon, and he said he had advised his wife to respond to an intruder in an old-fashioned way: “Put that double-barreled shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house.” He was denounced on left and right, but he had a point: We would be far better off if nervous families sought protection from a shotgun rather than from an assault rifle or 9-millimeter handgun.

He also illustrates this point with a graphic showing how often different calibers of gun are recovered from crime scenes:

Okay, let's note a couple problems with this "harm reduction" approach:

1) He references Biden's infamous "fire two blasts outside the house" advice as a "common sense" approach instead of having people own handguns or "assault rifles". Yet when you look at his graphic on how often guns of different types are recovered from crime scenes, the .22 rifle and 12 gauge shotgun which Kristof says he owns himself (and cites as normal types of guns to own) are both recovered from crime scenes much more often than .223 caliber rifles -- the normal caliber for rifles of the infamous AR-15 type. If harm reduction means avoiding types of gun which are often used in crime, then why does he advocate people get shotguns, the single most frequently used type of long gun in crime?  

2) Kristoff also takes a swipe at the 9mm handgun, describing it as "most lethal weapon of all". Is it, though? This assumes that the problem is that some types of gun are inherently more lethal than others. But there's nothing terrifying about the 9mm handgun as compared to other types. Indeed, the .40cal (second most frequently found on crime scenes) fires a larger bullet with a larger load of powder, thus delivering more foot-pounds of force: 275ft/lbs for 9mm, 441 ft/lbs for .40 S&W

Source: Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading

Why are 9mm handguns found so often on crime scenes? They're simply the most common handguns. They are used by most police departments and by the US military. And they are the single most commonly sold caliber of handgun. 

The reason .40cal handguns rank so high also probably has to do with availability: a number of police forces (and even the FBI) used to use the more powerful .40S&W round. They later switched to the 9mm, which is lighter (and thus easier to carry) and which has lower recoil (and thus more accurate follow-up shots.)  The result is that used gun dealers often have a fair number of "police surplus" handguns in .40 S&W available cheap. That affordable availability is probably why .40cal is the second most common caliber of handgun found on crime scenes.

So whether one is contemplating gun regulations or what sort of gun to own, looking at the statistics of the type of guns used in crime is not a useful move. Nor does doing so accurately even lead to eschewing AR-15s for 12-gauge shotguns or .22 rifles. The frequency with which different types of guns show up in crime scenes is not a function of how inherently dangerous the caliber is, but rather of how available and useful guns of that type are to the less than 0.1% of gun owners who want to commit crimes. 

Owning a 9mm handgun is not going to make you more likely to commit a crime. Being a criminal is going to make you more likely to commit a crime. If you're going to buy a gun, buy the type of gun which is useful to you.  If the use that you seek is perforating paper targets and being prepared to protect your home if necessary, a 9mm handgun or a .223 AR-15 rifle may well be the right choice. These are, after all, the guns with which our law enformcement officers are most often armed, and their task is pretty similar to that of a citizen seeking to protect his or her home. If we truly seek crime mitigation, we should seek to prevent criminals from getting hold of guns, not avoid owning the same calibers of guns which criminals and suicidal people happen to get their hands on.

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