The Fallacy of Incommensurability II – Gun Control

In the past months there has been a lot of talk about various gun control measures. And a lot of the argumentation has presupposed the fallacy of incommensurability I mentioned in the previous post.

The idea that one has to do everything possible in order to save even one innocent life naturally leads people to the conclusion that, if the gun control measures X, Y, and Z will save even one person from being murdered, one has to take those measures.

Now, some of those measures can also be expected to result in the death of innocent persons who are killed because they, or someone around them, did not have a gun as a result of legislation or other pressures imposed by government or media. We may suppose, though, that at least some measures can be taken that will per year save more lives than those lost as a result of the same measures.

But what about the possibility that personal ownership of guns is a safeguard against a possible tyrannical government? Should that be a significant consideration in deliberation about gun control laws? Or is it ridiculous, as some have claimed, to avoid taking current measures helpful to save lives in order to safeguard ourselves from some imaginary future scenario of a tyrannical government?

I'll run through the numbers, but before I do that, let me state the summary result for those less interested in the numbers behind it. Basically, when one works out the various risks involved, one comes to the conclusion that a rational legislator considering any significant gun-control laws, is obliged to consider the risk of an increased probability of tyranny, and to take that risk into account in considering those laws.

Let's look at the numbers. Looking history, it is a pretty conservative estimate to say that there is a 2% chance that the government of the USA will within the next 100 years have become a tyrannical power that has murdered at least 5% of the civilian population (15,000,000 persons) due to personal characteristics (race, beliefs, infirmity, etc.) or in order to maintain its own power. Note that by this 2% chance I do not mean there is a 2% chance of tyranny if the country keeps going in such and such a direction, but that the chance is this high all things considered.

Statistically this risk of murder by a future tyrannical government is equivalent to the certain murder of 300,000 persons in that same 100 years, or 3000 persons per year. There would of course be a great deal of harm done to the other 95% of the population being a part of or living under tyranny, which would increase the evil of tyranny and the importance of considering the possibility of a future tyrannical government, but let's set that aside.

Now suppose a set of gun control laws increases the mentioned risk of murderous tyranny by a small amount, but enough that the increased risk is perceivable and plausible, say 5% (for a total of 2.1%). That additional risk is the equivalent of an expected 150 persons per year murdered.

So, if it is even plausible that a set of gun-control laws will increase the risk of an eventual tyranny by even a very small amount, those gun-control laws would need to have an expected outcome of at least 150 lives saved from murder per year. And there is, indeed based on historical evidence a good deal of plausibility, indeed probability for the opinion that the enaction of serious gun-control increases the chance of tyranny.

Consequently, the argument of gun-control opponents that the second amendment and the possession of guns is a safe-guard against tyranny is a significant argument, that a rational legislator is obliged to take seriously. It could only be set aside on the premise that there is no plausibility to the opinion that gun-control laws increase the chance of a future tyranny, or that it is just as probable that gun-control laws decrease the chance of a future tyranny.

Note that I make no claim to evaluate here the prudence of any particular legislation on guns, only a kind of meta-claim about what is necessary in order to establish the prudence of such legislation.

4 Responses to “The Fallacy of Incommensurability II – Gun Control”

  1. Robert Davis says:

    Gun related homicides in the US run to about 10,000 per year, and gun related suicide to about 20,000. The figures quoted above need upward revision.

    Are there any historical examples to show that gun possession is associated with reduced risk of tyranny? If so, from what countries?

    Before the suppression of government research on gun related violence, the only firm conclusion drawn by US researchers about gun presence in the home was the increased risk of violent death among household members.

    • Joseph Bolin says:

      The absolute number of homicides is not directly irrelevant to a policy decision aimed at decreasing the number of homicides. What is relevant is, how many lives does one expect to save by the policy? According to president Obama, one needs to make such a policy even if the number of expected lives to be saved is "one".

      I stated, "Those gun-control laws would need to have an expected outcome of at least 150 lives saved from murder per year." That would be true if the current homicide rate were 200 per year. And it would be true if the current rate were 500,000 per year. The current homicide rate is simply irrelevant to this particular figure. Naturally, the higher the homicide rate by guns, the more plausible it is that gun control will save lives and decrease the homicide rate. But that is a different issue.

    • Joseph Bolin says:

      I haven't seen any claims to investigate in detail an association in general of civilian gun possession with greater or lesser risk of tyranny. But there are many claims of association between strict gun control and tyranny, which is really what is at stake here. I haven't seen anyone dispute this association as a matter of historical fact.

      You don't look at individual countries, but at all of them, and at the statistical correlation overall. If you take the number of tyrannical countries in the last 100 years, and divide that by the total number of countries (sovereign states) in the last 100 years, you'll get the probability (other things being equal) that a given country will be tyrannical within the next 100 years. While the count of tyrannical countries that performed mass execution depends on one's exact definition, there are at least seven pretty clear and big ones: Nazi Germany, USSR, China, Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo. Considering these in comparison to the total number of sovereign states, the overall risk of tyranny on such a scale by a given country is around 7/200, or 3.5%. (There have also been many wars and civil wars that involved genocide to some degree, but here we're looking at the question of tyranny.)

      Now, if you take the number of tyrannical countries that have practiced strict gun control, and divide that by the number of countries overall that have practiced strict gun control, you'll get the chance that a country that practices strict gun control will be tyrannical. The fact is, most tyrannical countries have had strict gun control. Of the seven above, all did except Congo, where the civilian population didn't have guns to begin with. If we say, somewhat generously, that a third of countries have practiced strict gun control, that gives us, for a given country that has strict gun control, a chance of 6/66 of being tyrannical, or 9%.

      Based on these figures, a country practicing strict gun control is 2.5 times more likely to be or become tyrannical than a country that doesn't have strict gun control.

      These figures could be worked out more accurately and more precisely, taking into account the smaller repressive regimes, varying degrees of gun control, and so on.

      But for whatever reason, people don't seem particularly interested in working out the exact numbers. Those opposed to gun control are satisfied with pointing out the fact that most repressive regimes have severely restricted gun ownership (e.g., Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership), while those in favor of gun control are satisfied with the claims that (1) there is no necessary connection between restriction of gun ownership and tyranny, and (2) the restriction proposed at present isn't really a severe restriction.

      It is clear, though, that smaller restrictions of gun ownership make it more likely that severe restrictions will be made in the future, and thus, increase the corresponding risk of anything that tends to go along with severe restriction.

  2. Robert Davis says:

    One wonders abut the impact of guns on the suicide rate. I never heard of successful suicides in my two years in Mobutu's Zaire, where guns were generally banned. In the U.S., the would-be suicide is likely to fail if he or she takes drugs. the would-be suicide is most likely to succeed if there is a gun available.

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