GlockThe asinine suggestion that gun manufacturers should be coerced into coming up with ways to reduce murder rates “or else” comes in the form of an essay from Jeffrey Fagan and Stephen D. Sugarman, university professors at Columbia and UC Berkley respectively.

I say “asinine” because I find the very idea ludicrous, to such a degree that the title alone should be enough to trigger a bemused response from sensible readers to whom rights are important. I want to deal with this from a perspective of principle, because that is what appears to be lacking from the proposals of Fagan and Sugarman in this piece. That said, the fact that the professors are attempting to provide solid, practical, original policy ideas is rare enough to make it welcome, in concept if not in content.

So let’s read it. I’m going to post the majority of the thing here and interrupt as we go.

It starts:

“This year, about 12,000 Americans will be shot to death. It’s a staggering figure, and even though lawmakers have continued to pass gun-control laws to try to bring the number down, they have not significantly reduced the murder rate. Indeed, for the last decade, guns have steadily remained the cause of about two-thirds of all homicides.”

So in America we have guns. 300 million people, and every year about 18,000 of that population get killed by other members of the population. That’s 0.0006 percent of the population every year who die from some fracas with someone else, and two-thirds of those (about 0.0004 percent of the US population) whose homicides are committed with a firearm. Fagan and Sugarman didn’t say whether they considered that the homicides committed with guns may have occurred in the absence of guns anyway, but it seems logical to me that the motive for a homicide exists before the weapon is chosen, and it therefore seems logical, by extension, that if not all then many of those murders would have occurred in any case (more on this in the next ‘graph).

“Gun manufacturers insist that these deaths are not their fault, preferring to pin the blame on criminals and irresponsible dealers. They have fiercely resisted even minimal restrictions on sales and have simultaneously washed their hands of responsibility for this ‘collateral damage.'”

Well of course the deaths are not the fault of the gun manufacturers, and unless Fagan and Sugarman wish to write exclusively to an audience which is predisposed to believe that gun manufacturers are responsible for homicides committed using their products, they need to pause here and defend this premise. Would murders committed using meat cleavers be the fault of cutlery manufacturers? Would murders committed using nail guns be the fault of Black & Decker? Would murders committed using Prius hybrid vehicles be the fault of Toyota?

Fagan and Sugarman may respond that the products in those cases are not being used for their intended purposes, whereas the intended purpose of a gun is to kill someone and thus the gun manufacturers must share responsibility for their use for that purpose. Well, that’s ridiculous. First of all, it’s not the case at all that the purpose of all guns is to kill: many are designed for other purposes entirely including target shooting, hunting and competition (the fact is that firearms in America are used for those three purposes many, many times more often than for the killing of other people). Secondly, the purpose of a self-defense firearm is not homocide. It’s purpose is self-defense, and if it is used instead for homocide then it, like the meat cleaver, the nail gun and the Toyota Prius, is being used for a purpose other than that intended by the manufacturer (whose product was instead manufactured to help the victims on the other side of the exchange).

It is utterly frivolous to assign responsibility for murder to the manufacturer of a product used in such a random and unusual act of evil, as though it was the purpose for which it was manufactured (and even if it was, as though no other options existed when the murderer picked up the weapon). It seems to me that Fagan and Sugarman have much work to do to establish the legitimacy of this basic underlying premise before going on to build a policy on it.

“On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court made the problem a little more difficult to solve, ruling in District of Columbia vs. Heller that the individual’s right to bear arms is indeed protected by the 2nd Amendment — and making it clear that some laws banning guns would have a difficult time passing constitutional muster in the future.”

What they did was to defend a person’s basic right to protect themselves. Those who wish to break the law by committing homicide will not consult firearm laws before they do so. It’s amusing that Fagan and Sugarman seem to be annoyed that the Supreme Court took their responsibility to interpret the US Constitution seriously, but you can be assured that the justices did the right thing.

“What is to be done? The conventional regulatory approaches seem to be failing.”

No shit. Gun control laws are having the opposite effect, by disarming law abiding people and putting them at the whim of those who still have guns (those who don’t obey the law).

“We propose a new way to prod gun makers to reduce gun deaths, one that would be unlikely to put them out of business or to prevent law-abiding citizens from obtaining guns. By using a strategy known as ‘performance-based regulation,’ we would deputize private actors — the gun makers — to deal with the negative effects of their products in ways that promote the public good.”

The “negative effects of their products”? It seems to me that a product like a gun can be used for good, for evil or for morally neutral purposes (the first and third many orders of magnitude more often than the second). There are only negative effects of the way people use the product, not of the product itself (a gun sitting in a gun safe has no “negative effects” whatsoever). You may feel that I’m quibbling on this point, even if you agree that most guns actually do sit in safes or closets and are rarely used, even for recreational shooting. But it’s important to note here another fleeting manifestation of Fagan and Sugarman’s lack of principle.

“In other words, rather than telling gun makers what to do, performance-based regulation would tell them what outcome they must achieve: Reduce deaths by guns. Companies that achieve the target outcomes might receive large financial bonuses; companies that don’t would face severe financial penalties. Put simply, gun makers — whose products kill even when used as directed — would have to take responsibility for curbing the consequent public health toll.”

And there we have a problem, because Fagan and Sugarman have not yet established that gun manufacturers are in any sense responsible for the deaths of people shot with their products, and until they do we may as well tell the landlords of the buildings in front of which the shootings took place that they need to work to reduce gun deaths, or the manufacturers of the products over which the fight took place leading to the shooting that they must work to reduce gun deaths. Logically, in the absence of a decent ethical theory pinning blame for murders on gun manufacturers, these suggestions are no more ridiculous than Fagan and Sugarman’s.

It’s worth noting also that “severe financial penalties” are the bottom line here in Fagan and Sugarman’s proposal. (Traditionally, we’ve called such penalties ‘taxes’.)

“Under our plan, Congress might require gun makers in the aggregate to reduce gun homicides from 12,000 to, say, 7,000 in 10 years, with appropriate interim targets along the way. Individual firms would each have their own targets to meet, based on the extent their guns are currently used in homicides. Or Congress might simply leave it to neutral experts to determine just how much of a numerical reduction should be required — and how quickly. Either way, the required decline would be substantial.”

A “substantial” level of difficulty without an idea of how gun companies are going to do it. Rather than being new, this is typical of government: to barge in without a clue what the hell they’re doing and then tell people they have to jump to a certain height in order to avoid “severe” penalties. This proposal is beginning to stink like the stale, rewrapped hack-piece it is. Arbitrary figures, frivolous premises: the best of government interference.

“How would gun companies go about reducing gun deaths? The main thing to emphasize is that this approach relies on the nimbleness, innovation and experimentation that come from private competition — rather than on the heavy-handed power of governmental regulation.”

Is that supposed to be funny? The sole reason innovation and private competition would even be invoked in this case is precisely because of the “heavy-handed power of governmental regulation.”

Anyway, the authors are now getting to telling us how they envision gun manufacturers being able to stop their products being used for homicide, and giving some examples. Goody, I can’t wait.

“Gun makers might decide to add trigger locks to their guns…”

Okay. I’d be surprised if more than half a percent of all homocides occur using legally obtained guns which have then been stolen by a homicide perpetrator, yet only that precise scenario could be averted by manufacturers adding “trigger locks” to guns. How this is supposed to even begin to reduce the murder rate from 12,000 to 7,000 is beyond me.

“…or to work only with dealers who meet certain standards of responsibility.”

What does that mean?

“They might withdraw their semiautomatic weapons from the consumer market…”

Fagan and Sugarman either know nothing about self-defense using firearms, or they’re being disingenuous to characterize their piece as one which is compatible with the ruling of DC v Heller (the spirit of which was the right of people to defend themselves effectively). Since Fagan and Sugarman say they aren’t fighting the idea that people have a right to own firearms for effective self-defense, they should acknowledge that semiautomatic firearms are the only expedients of that objective. (A homeowner under attack who can only fire a single shot while their attacker can follow up with several more against them – semiautomatic – has been rendered defenseless against the attack.)

Furthermore, most firearms in America are semiautomatic. This suggestion seems at odds with Fagan and Sugarman’s claim that they don’t want to put gun manufacturers out of business; it seems a peculiar way to ensure that that is the case. This essay is becoming downright unconvincing.

“…or even work hand in hand with local officials to fight gangs and increase youth employment opportunities.”

Well that would be wonderful, but such things tend to be voluntary and not related to any “severe” penalties for preferring instead to get on with the perfectly legitimate task of supporting your employees and investors by, er, doing business, which is presumably the reason to exist in the first place. Again this bizarre proposition stems directly from the erroneous and hitherto undefended belief that the manufacturer of a tool is somehow responsible for the evil actions of the infinitesimally tiny number of those who own them. Such a thing could not be suggested apart from that belief. That much is evident in the next sentence:

“Surely they will think up new strategies once they have a legal obligation and financial incentive to take responsibility for the harm their products cause.”

This may be the worst sentence in the whole piece. The “harm their products cause”? That’s basic ideological hogwash. When a product ’causes harm’, its manufacturer is rightly held to account for it (for example, laptop batteries blowing up and burning the balls off unsuspecting geeks, or children’s toys inadvertently emitting toxic substances). But a gun does not ’cause harm’ by itself; only a human action could ’cause harm’ using the gun. That’s obvious to all except the ideological fuckwits whose essential claim is that the act of making a tool which can throw a piece of metal in a desired direction at a high speed is inherently malevolent and that doing so should require compensation to society for the fact that a miniscule portion of ‘society’ has decided to misuse the tool.

The essay goes on to talk about precedent for this proposal in the cases of environmental goals and policies on tobacco (don’t get me started). It then indulges in the mechanics of how the proposal would work in practice – no doubt titillating for Fagan and Sugarland – involving how the police could use the records of exactly which manufacturers’ weapons are being most-used in homicides to assign blame (my word) to gun companies by percentage of total harm. I’ll fast-forward through that hokum-fest and get to the end:

“Our proposal is not a tax on gun sales. As long as gun companies met their goals, they would pay nothing extra to the government. Indeed, the plan might reward them with bonuses.”

How generous! ‘As long as you meet our cretinous list of goals requiring you to understand the motives for murder and – somehow – deal with the homicide rates by – somehow – changing the tools being used in homicides so that – somehow – homicide rates end up “significantly” lower, we won’t tax you the hell into bankruptcy.’ (Oops, I mean, ‘you might get a “bonus”‘.)

What bullshit.

“Performance-based regulation is not about the government denying people access to guns. It’s not an academic theory about the underlying causes of gun deaths, nor is it a restriction on the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms. Instead, it is a practical way to align the gun companies’ interests with the public interest and, ultimately, to save lives.”

Their proposal is “not” this and is “not” that, and yet it’s worse than all of it combined. At least the city of Washington DC was being honest when it banned the ownership of handguns (a ban which, to my great delight, is being reversed at long last as we speak). Fagan and Sugarhead appear to inhabit a scholastic bubble, into which no sense goes and from which only nonsense emerges. I can only hope that “performance-based regulation” could one day be used to incentivize university professors to stick to the curriculum rather than engaging in social engineering.

This proposal is dishonest, unrealistic and – most important of all – ethically indefensible.