Sam Harris Neglects The Most Important Evidence About Guns

Jan 4, 2013

I have the highest admiration for Sam Harris.  I was an elected official when I first read his book. He made me think in new ways about religion and about the hard realities of its force in the realm of public policy. I am forever thankful to him. In the years since, I find I agree with him the overwhelming majority of the time.   

However, in his recent piece on gun control, Sam Harris failed to address the two most important pieces of evidence related to that topic.

1) the evidence regarding domestic violence against women;

2) the data confirming success of gun control in other countries.

Loaded guys with loaded guns is at the heart of violence in America. Most will not be surprised that homicides by men are ten times those committed by women.

In an ironic coincidence, Harris’s piece on gun control was published on the same day that The Violence Against Women Act was unjustly shot down in the U.S. House. Firearm assaults on female family members, and intimate acquaintances are approximately twelve times more likely to result in death than are assaults using other weapons. Two-thirds of women killed by spouses are killed with guns. This is not some minor secondary issue, yet Mr. Harris did not delve into it. It is the heart of the matter—a form of chronic and pervasive domestic terrorism.  

It is impossible to claim to address gun violence in American while failing to address domestic violence against women. The graphic for his blog on this topic is a picture of a handgun. And that is the where the discussion must be centered.

Second, Sam Harris fails to delve into the actual data comparing U.S. gun violence with other developed nations. This comparison was the first point that Richard Dawkins correctly and immediately made after the recent massacre in Connecticut. (While Richard Dawkins and I agree on gun control, I am fully responsible for this piece).

America’s rate of homicide with guns is dramatically higher than in most countries that have strict gun control policy. Harris fails to address the data, quickly dismissing comparisons to other countries, implying this is a really an inner city problem (he lists “Detroit, Oakland, Memphis, Little Rock, Stockton”). 

There are gangs in Europe. They kill each other less frequently – because they have less access to guns. Sadly men engage in domestic violence in other developed countries (rural and urban), but they have less access to guns than do American men (urban, suburban and rural). The horrendous terrorizing reality, the reality that his piece fails to dignify with serious discussion, is that a much smaller percentage of women die in other developed countries specifically because there is far less access to guns, especially handguns.

The neglect of the data regarding these two critically important topics means that the most important two aspects of gun violence in America are not really analyzed in Sam Harris’ piece.

Harris instead offers that it is reasonable that Sam Harris judges “himself” to be “psychologically stable” and “committed to safe handling” of firearms.

I worked briefly as a prosecutor before serving in elective office. Harris’ statement about himself is ironic given the stark realities law enforcement faces when dealing with vast numbers of people. Does Sam — or Joe or Jim — think he’s “stable” when he buys a gun?  Of course. We all think that. But in the real world — it’s later when the gun gets drawn.  Men, often drunk, get in fights. Men, often drunk, become jealous or want to control women. As anger or jealousy boils “stability” and “commitment to safe handling” can change — and do change — often – and often very quickly — into a dangerous and often lethal rage.

Harris devotes space to discussing his positive experience at target.This fails to capture the ocean of drunken rages that — in America distinctly — are supercharged by guns.  (And, though more rare, let’s consider: do maniacs who engage in mass shootings deem themselves “stable”? It’s a silly question of course. They can get guns in this country just as easily as intellectual authors and just as easily as an otherwise normal man, who, sparked by circumstance or pre-disposition or both, flies into a blind range.

Harris drags out the Swimming Pool Canard. You’ve heard this canard: Children are more likely to die in pools than by getting shot. Therefore children dying by gun violence should be dismissed as…just one of those things. Similar reasoning works like this: “Women are about eight times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than by breast cancer, so all that concern about breast cancer is overblown.” Please. It is entirely reasonable that society can, and should, work to address breast cancer – and cardiovascular disease, hospital hygiene safety (Harris raises this chestnut too) and handguns. The either/or choice is a rhetorical trick, not a reasoned argument.  

In fact we can and must in public policy balance issues not by comparing swimming pools to handguns – but on their own merits — the pluses and minuses unique to each — based on evidence.  For example, the Swimming Pool Canard: What are the advantages and disadvantages of pools? How many Michael Phelps are produced? Very few. How many people live healthier more pleasurable lives? Millions upon millions. How many save themselves from drowning because they learned to swim in a pool?  Many, myself included.  Swimming pools, you will concede, have positive attributes, indeed healthful attributes, that benefit millions. But to follow twisted NRA logic we must utterly ignore the positive value of pools.

Now, what positive is offered by guns? The pleasure of target practice? Perhaps…but the risk of death, much more common than in other nations, the widespread terrorizing of women, I would submit, far outweigh the pleasure of shooting at a pretend paper body on a target.  As the data make clear, the mythological self-defense argument is far outweighed by well-documented domestic violence, accidents, and suicides that exist in much smaller percentages in other developed nations. 

Sam Harris throws this one on the wall: a lot of people die from fist-fights. This one doesn’t stick either because the obvious was not acknowledged. If you handed guns to the same pool of often drunk fist-fighters, a much higher percentage of them would kill or die.

Toward the end of his piece, Sam Harris slips in that he favors strict gun licensing and gun control. I commend him. He asserts this position with less energy and emphasis than his assertion of NRA arguments, but he must be commended nonetheless.  However, on two critical remedies, Harris backs up his NRA rhetoric with NRA policy positions. Both are wrong.

Those two are handgun buy-backs and legislation removing the handgun from its prevalent place in the American way of life, maiming — and death, a prevalence that does not exist in so many other entirely productive, more safe and more healthy developed countries.

Harris offers that some people will kill people with hunting rifles which are more accurate than handguns, but that’s a side issue. I assume Harris agrees that rifles should be strictly licensed anyway, and, moreover, most people aren’t Oswald style killers. Far more common are the angry situations with handguns that Harris does so little to confront.

The handgun is easily the most convenient and most common choice for the loaded man wanting a loaded gun – the combination that causes so much terror in America every single day. It is the crux of the issue. Regardless of our position on the issue, we must squarely acknowledge that America would dramatically reduce killing in general and fatal domestic violence in particular if we dramatically reduced access to handguns (which can’t be used for deer hunting).  

Harris first dismisses reduction of access to handguns (and automatic and semi-automatic weapons) with The Gun Flood argument. When one chooses to face up to how pervasive the terrorizing of women with guns is in America, it allows the reader to much more conveniently shrug one’s shoulders and conclude, well, America’s flooded with guns, especially handguns, so we’ll just have to tell everyone to, well, buy even more guns.  Will the NRA’s “tell everyone to buy more guns” argument make women safer? Harris does not answer this question — because the answer is most certainly no. The proposed new Gun Flood will in the real world mean more women killed in domestic violence. Mr. Harris did not address this.  And, regardless of one’s stand on this issue, it is a fact and it must be faced unblinkingly, just as law enforcement and surviving family members will be forced to face this fact if it comes to pass.

Yet — logistically — this is indeed the best NRA argument (however cynical). They say implicitly: 1) We flooded America with guns quite successfully, so it’s now too late, and therefore explicitly 2) be afraid and buy more guns.

Public policy is a balancing of choices based on real world possibilities. Why fail to discuss less deadly alternatives? 

Gun buy-backs were successful in Australia after a mass shooting in the 1990s. It worked. Gun violence is down Down Under. Will it work here? Who knows, but it will work a lot better than Gun Flood Part Two, on top of the massive Gun Flood Part One. That is certain. Better to emulate Australia’s success than to guarantee more domestic terrorizing of women.

I’m glad Sam Harris and I agree that a “well regulated militia” does not include every Tom, Dick and drunk or angry Harry. However, Harris quickly offers a second argument against handgun buybacks and restrictions: He says it’s not politically feasible in 2012.

Assuming that conclusion is true, it is irrelevant. 

In 1955 it would be entirely reasonable to conclude that a civil rights bill was not going to pass – not in 1955. Opponents falsely claimed that a civil rights law was unconstitutional in 1955.  I suppose civil rights organizers and sympathetic politicians could have dusted their hands and had cocktails instead.

Because sound policy may not become law today says nothing about whether a movement can be built to address a horrible injustice, an injustice that falls especially harshly on women and the poor, an injustice that would only be made far worse by flooding this country with even more guns, particularly more handguns.

I strongly commend Sam Harris for his support of some gun control laws. However, as the 2012 election proved, American demographics are changing and will change more. It is entirely possible that we can indeed work successfully for legislation that removes handguns and assault weapons — which have no sporting use — and create a strong buy-back program to counteract the NRA orchestrated gun flood.  Given the carnage guaranteed by the alternative, we have no ethical choice but to organize. We have no ethical choice but to give this cause our best. 

Enraged men with loaded guns is the most dangerous and pervasive part of this problem.  Very frequently those killed will be terrorized family members who deserve much more respect than the NRA reaction has offered them so far. Sam Harris is a courageous, thoughtful and good human being from whom I have learned much. I urge him to expand his analysis and focus and join this effort. This is what a reasoned approach requires. I extend my hand to him in undying admiration.

Links for more information are below:

Sean Faircloth is author of Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It.  Faircloth briefly served as a state Assistant Attorney General handling child protection cases then was promoted to a prosecution position, then served ten years in his state legislature. Faircloth is Director of Strategy & Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science.

Written By: Sean Faircloth
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