Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The self-defense Tuskegee

Jerry Stratton, May 21, 1997

The Tuskegee experiment: Men died. Spouses died. Children died. It was a racist experiment, a horrible chapter in United States history. President Clinton says that the Tuskegee syphilis experiment should “never happen again”. Yet we and he do not really want to learn from history. We like the music of “never again” but we’re not prepared to dance.

We’re repeating the Tuskegee experiment all over with our gun control laws. All of these laws seek to prevent the poor from defending themselves while exempting the wealthy: through exemption of police, military, and security forces. All tools that the wealthy can rely on but that the poor and middle class cannot. Nowhere is this goal more clear than in so-called “Saturday Night Special” laws that seek to outlaw affordable self-defense arms.

The Union Tribune here in San Diego is a case in point. Their editorial stated:

  1. There is no evidence that the firearms covered by “SNS” laws are used disproportionately by criminals.
  2. These firearms are sold illegally out of the trunks of cars.
  3. Therefore, we should make it illegal for the law-abiding to buy them in gun stores.

On the surface, this sounds like some sort of works program for criminals. What it ends up doing is (a) ensuring violence in inner cities, and (b) encouraging criminals to prey on the poor rather than the rich.

Since the first gun control laws in the aftermath of the civil war, gun control has been designed to keep the right of self-defense from the poor and minorities. Today’s push for “Saturday Night Special” laws are nothing but a poorly disguised continuation. Strip away the hyperbole and all you’ve got are “we need to remove inexpensive firearms from the hands of the poor”.

Never mind that every major scientific study has shown that firearms ownership in a community reduces violent crime.

Never mind that every increase in firearms ownership in the United States since 1900 has resulted in a decrease in firearms accidents.

Never mind that every community that has instituted major gun control becomes an example of excess crime: Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York City.

Over thirty states now recognize the right of the average person to carry firearms in self-defense. All have seen reduced violence. So-called “Saturday Night Special” laws seek to deny to the poor this re-emergening right of self-defense. There is no other explanation.

The cry is that Saturday Night Specials are “dangerous”, that they can “explode” with no warning. And yet:

  • These laws do not focus on quality control. They focus on price, or on size, or on price-based factors such as the metal used to manufacture the arm or the manufacturing process itself. Nowhere in these laws do they measure the danger they claim they are trying to fight. Instead, they focus on price. Inexpensive arms that the less-wealthy can afford are banned.
  • Some of these laws pretend to focus on quality control: they use a “melting point” test. That is, they measure whether or not the firearm will melt under extreme heat. This is a valid argument only if owners plan to defend themselves within a blast furnace. All this really is, is a way of pretending not to be focusing on inexpensive metals. No study has ever found that handguns with low “melting points” are more likely to “blow up”.
  • Most such laws encourage police officers and the military to carry the so-called “Saturday Night Special”. Police and the military are invariably exempted from such laws. Do we care so little for our police? Are their children worth less than other people’s children? Or is it that the drafters of these laws recognize that there is no safety danger in the affected self-defense weapons? If the true aim is to disarm the poor, it makes sense that the police and the military should be exempted from the law.

By their very nature, laws to stop inexpensive firearms cannot stop such firearms from reaching criminals. Inexpensive arms are inexpensive because they are easy and cheap to manufacture. They can be manufactured in a criminal’s basement. How many violent criminals are there in your city? A hundred? A thousand? And most of them are repeat offenders: the same criminals over and over again. How many firearms does a basement manufacturer have to create to supply all the criminals in your city with firearms?

Very few. It isn’t difficult. Firearms are just pieces of metal, stamped or molded. Pakistani and Afghan peasants made firearms which use the Russian AK-47 cartridge; they used wood fires and simple hand tools. Even in prisons, police cannot enforce firearms bans: prisoners continually manufacture illicit arms. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. But if it takes a criminal, then only criminals will have these arms. The law-abiding, as usual, will abide by the law.

Even if no criminal went into illegal arms manufacturing, smuggling will easily fill the gap: during a study period from 1986 to 1989, 500,000 AK-47s were smuggled from China. If that many rifles can be smuggled, how will we stop a few thousand small handguns from coming in? And these arms will be all the more useful because the law-abiding have been disarmed. Criminals will have free play in the streets and homes of the poor.

What about crime control? Consider:

  • Why in the world do we want to encourage criminals to use better quality firearms?
  • Cheaper handguns are easier to trace: the fired bullet and the handgun share more distinguishing features.
  • Cheaper handguns provide more microscopic residue on the shooter. Hardly a major concern for self-defense, but it makes it much easier to prove that the firearm in question was fired by a criminal who says otherwise.
  • Criminals steal handguns. They don’t buy them legally. What does price matter to a criminal?
  • The Department of Justice has already concluded that criminals prefer larger caliber, more expensive firearms.

In other words, criminals don’t use the very weapons these laws affect. And we wouldn’t want to discourage them from using them over other weapons even if they did. Any criminal who uses an inexpensive firearm is easier to catch and easier to convict.

So if it isn’t crime control, what is it? Gun control advocate Philip Cook wrote pretty clearly in 1981, “The major argument against a high tax is that it is economic discrimination and thus unethical, or at least politically unpalatable....[However] a high tax is not the only method of increasing the minimum price for handguns and subtle approaches may be more acceptable politically.” (“The Saturday Night Special: An Assessment of Alternative Definitions from a Policy Perspective”, 72 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 1735, 1740)

In other words, “Saturday Night Special” laws are a “subtle” way around unethical economic discrimination. It is an experiment for which we already know the answer:

And men will die, women will die, spouses and children will die: all because of an “experiment” which we already know is doomed to fail. We already know that reducing firearms ownership among the law-abiding increases violence. We already know that reducing access to firearms and firearms training increases firearms accidents. We already know that firearms are so incredibly easy to smuggle and to manufacture that criminals will never have to be affected by our laws.

And we stand by once again while the poor die, as Nero stands in his castle playing “Never again” on an old but familiar instrument.

August 2, 2005: Tuskegee deception aimed at whom?

My Self-Defense Tuskegee article is part of a High School program that teaches students to analyze news and opinion. I’ve never seen the entire program, but it seems like a great idea:

Instead of looking at the Tuskegee Study and saying, "That was bad," if we are to really learn from the experience and avoid things like it in the future, we must be clear about what made the Tuskegee Study so tragic.

That sentence sums up why I wrote that article in 1997.

The Tuskegee WebQuest is used by several instructors around the United States and possibly around the world. I often start receiving messages from students during late spring. Most of the emails are well-written, and when the program started several years ago, I tried to respond to all of the messages that came in. More recently this has become too time-consuming. I apologize to any of the students reading this, but the Tuskegee Study WebQuest appears to be very popular. I receive a lot of messages about it, and don’t have time to respond to them. Even this article is about two months late.

Once in a while, however, I get a message intriguing enough or interesting enough that I need to respond. A student in New Jersey recently wrote saying that while a racial bias clearly draws similarities between the two events, there are some major differences. The biggest difference is that, even though deception was evident in both cases, the deception was a lot stronger for the Tuskegee study. The participants in that study were completely unaware of what was really going on. But poor people affected by laws against affordable firearms see through the deception. They know that these laws target them.

That’s a very important point.

First, I agree that there are many differences between Tuskegee study and laws against affordable firearms. My biggest concern when I wrote that article was that most of the reports coming out during that time period were about how horrible things “used to be”, without considering similarities to current policies. Gun control happened to be a policy that I was familiar with and cared about. There are others: Driving While Black stops and arrests are another example.

The most important point is that racial bias in social experiments is not a thing of the past. It still exists. Most of the time, however, I suspect that the targets of such racist policies and programs are not the targets of the deception. Despite the deception used by legislators and lobbyists to push laws against affordable firearms, the people the laws are aimed at--the poor--are, as this student suggests, likely well aware of the real purpose of those laws.

Like laws against affordable firearms, the people who are affected by DWB enforcement know about it; most everyone else ignores it or pretends it doesn’t happen. It’s the “everyone else” that the deception is aimed at.

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