Reservations of an observer in the gun control (dis)information wars

A recent talk given by John Lott at Fordham University left the audience including myself mildly to moderately stunned: who knew that one of the main arguments used by the Obama administration to push for changes in gun control policy consists of nothing short of blatant prevarication, and that the introduction of gun control laws almost inevitably resulted in murder rates skyrocketing all around the world?

Prevarications, of course, or rather the twisting and spinning of the facts appear to be a sin committed just as heartily and frequently on both sides of the gun control debate. And, more importantly, if we are to borrow Bernie Madoff’s now-immortal phrase, “there is no innocent explanation” for it all.

According to John Lott, the numbers used recently by President Obama as he was urging for increasing gun control laws and zealously repeated by Vice President Biden and the news media are simply incorrect. For example, their claim that “over the last 14 years [background checks] kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun” suggests that as many criminals were denied a gun permit, and hence a possibility of buying a gun.  One might wonder why convicted criminals would even bother applying for a legal gun permit, considering that, first, they are not going to get one issued anyway, and second, that the black market in firearms is alive and well and nothing short of thriving. Lott clarifies that the quoted “1.5 million” reflects the number of initial denials, which are due to systemic errors and are in fact false positives overturned upon review in 94% of the recorded cases. A second round of review reduces the numbers of denials even further, to 0.1%. In 2010, this 0.1% translated into all of 63 cases of an initial denial of a gun permit warranting formal prosecution, which in turn resulted in a grand total of 13 convictions nationwide. Applying very basic math, one might try to extrapolate the 2010 numbers to arrive at some 182 convictions or 882 cases of prosecution over 14 years. Even if the estimated figures were ten or even a hundred times higher, they are still nowhere close to “1.5 million of the wrong people [being kept] from getting their hands on a gun.”

Of course, no one can realistically estimate how many people have been actually discouraged from considering the (legal) acquisition of a firearm by the administrative hassle associated with securing a permit and going through a background check.

Lott points to another apparently misleading statement of President Obama that was repeated widely by the media: “As many as 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check.” This understandably alarming number is materially incorrect in various ways. First, the actual number in the original 1997 National Institute of Justice report based on a 1994 study was 36%, not 40%. However, the study accounted for 36% of transfers conducted without background checks, not 36% of sales. Transfers included also gifts, lottery winnings, swaps, and inheritances. The number of sales proper conducted without a background check actually amounted to 11-15% according to Lott.  One might wonder why other types of gun ownership transfers, such as inheritances, gifts, private sales, or raffle prizes, should be excluded from background checks in the first place. In that case, using “sales” to refer to “ownership transfers” would appear to be an innocuous slip of tongue in the President’s speech.

However, Lott also directly questions the relevance of the study cited. It had been based on voluntary telephone survey responses of just 291 gun owners (the pollsters attempted to contact 2,568 adults but obtained only a 44-59% response rate; the number of actual gun owners successfully contacted in this fashion was understandably much lower); the majority of the transactions examined by this study was conducted before the Brady Act entered into force that mandated background checks; cheap and easily available gun sale licenses at the time made many of the transactions in question appear to the parties as informal, rather than official sales subject to federal regulation. In other words, those 291 respondents described what they believed to be the case, not necessarily what was, in fact, the case.

But the Obama administration surely could have found a more reliable study to support a policy proposal that was perceived as bringing about significant social change in a constitutionally sensitive area, could it not?

No, it could not. And here is why:  in 1996, the Congress, working with the NRA, banned the use of funding by the Center for Disease Control of any gun-violence related research and thereby eliminated the main source of funding available for this kind of studies. As a readily foreseeable result, annual spending on any kind of gun-related studies dropped from $2.6 million a year to a mere $100,000 per year; peer-reviewed research on gun studies dropped by 60%; there are currently only about a dozen US-based researchers who focus on gun violence at all. No wonder that, as of today, there is no data answering important questions: how many guns exist in the US; how gun ownership correlates with crime; and how gun ownership is correlated to non-crime-related deaths, such as suicides. A recent executive order by President Obama directing the Center for Disease Control to resume gun-related research may hopefully remedy this scandalous void on critical information – unless this ‘need to know’  it is somehow thwarted yet again successfully by the NRA lobby on “budgetary” or “procedural” grounds.

Considering the utter lack of almost any reliable data concerning the situation surrounding guns in the U.S., it is no wonder that studies such as those presented by John Lott in his book More Guns, Less Crime raise lots of controversies. Lott’s results that were obtained through regression analysis (so elegantly presented as graphs during his talk at Fordham) as well as other aspects of his methodology have been contested widely on a plethora of grounds by scholars such as Dan A. Black and Daniel S. Nagin and most notably by Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue,  but they have also found support by Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley.

In the end, without reliable data we simply cannot draw meaningful conclusions that would not be based merely on our emotional responses to the controversial issue of gun control. This is why removing the ability of Congress to manipulate original research and data gathering by means of pulling purse strings is so important.

Let me conclude with a quote of former Chief Justice Warren Burger commenting on a new legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, calling it “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”’

But that is a topic for an altogether different discussion.


A Brief Vademecum on Phallogocentrism: Philosophy’s Apophthegmata on Women

At least three thousand years of traceable voluntary use of the human intellect have yielded a modest but not altogether insignificant harvest on the most enduring challenge to cerebral cognition: women. 

Not all proponents of a view cited herein may qualify as philosophers in an academic sense, although all believe they do, as all are male. Rather than indulge the almost irresistible temptation to interpret and comment, we should let great men speak unmistakably for themselves, in their own words. Right off the Aegean cradle of philosophy, one can observe their figure skating on the thin ice of reason.

With Trojan and Peloponnesian wars safely behind them, and even the subversive Lysistrata insurrection put down safely – reportedly, Aristophanes got tenure at the Prytaneion for that one – now unemployed Hellenic heroes fixed their gaze onto philosophy. Of course one of the most stereotypically offensive things about Greek philosophers is their incurable belief in duality and opposites. It started with Pythagoras and has not ended yet just because the International Monetary Fund or German taxpayers wish it would. But even before the conjecture of a “Greek Budget” was first proposed – by Roman tax collector, no doubt – it must have been approved by a “democratic” legislature and voted on exclusively by men. Such were the results history has handed down to us:

“A Man is best off with a nonentity – a woman who sits in the house useless in her stupidity. I hate clever women. I don’t want a woman in my house thinking more than a woman ought to think, because Aphrodite inspires more mischief in the clever ones, while a helpless woman is freed from folly by the simplicity of her thoughts.”
Euripides. Hippolytos, 638-644 (480-406 B.C.E.).

Socrates, for one, drew a somewhat finer distinction between domestic specimens and fine imports. He plead guilty to having studied rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the lover of Pericles (Plato, Menexenus) and to have been taught erotics by the priestess Diotima of Mantinea (Plato, Symposium). Despite a great many mitigating circumstances sufficiently evidenced by his marriage to Xanthippe, we know his sentence by a jury of his peers. That lesson stuck, and it did not go unheeded by his disciples:

“It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.”
Aristoteles. Politica. ed. Loeb Classical Library, 1254 b 10-14.

"Mothers are fonder than fathers of their children because they are more certain they are their own." 
Aristoteles (384-322 B.C.E.)

Thankfully Menander, his contemporary, grasped the educational as well as the ontological nexus of the subject with zoology:

“A man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp.”
Menander. Synkrisis. 1.209-210. (341-290 B.C.E.)

As a First Amendment matter, we will not comment here on the long and noticeable absence of philosophy from the history of human thought from post-Constantine antiquity till the enlightenment, except to say that it was caused by Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church who discovered the logically simplest solution with habitual infallibility:

Mulier taceat in ecclesia.” (A woman’s place in church be silence)
St. Paul of Tarsus. 1 Cor. 14, 34. (5-67 C.E.).

The Holy Spirit – allegedly a pigeon and also a known ex vitro inseminator of sheltered modest virgins, second as such only to Zeus (consider, inter alia, the earliest known pre-Lohengrin swan whisperer, Leda) – must have relinquished this pearl of wisdom on his way out.

But once the megawatt bulb of the enlightenment came on, things positively changed – or did they?

“Woman: a human being that dresses, chatters and undresses.”
François Marie Arouet  a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778).

Leave it to a Frenchman to evaluate profound questions first and foremost for their fashion impact! It was an interesting commentary for a man professed disconsolate over the passing of Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, arguably the most evolved mathematical mind in her day in France, who had introduced him to the sciences and, aside from being his lover, was his copyrighted partner in responding to the 1734 prize question of the Académie des Sciences about the ‘nature of fire.’ Rumor has it she wrote the whole thing and gave Voltaire some mercy credit.

Then came a man who originally planned to emigrate to Pennsylvania to form a commune and, with his classmate, married two sisters to that end. They neglected to poll their ladies intentions, which is unsurprising in light of his groundbreaking tenet:

"The man’s desire is for the woman; but the woman’s desire is rarely other than for the desire of the man. "
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Table Talk. July 23, 1827. (1772-1834).

Colderidge’s theory explicitly permits exceptions. His manifestation of Murphy’s Law was that he happened to marry one without having done his homework. Yes, caveat emptor.

Kant (1724-1804), for one, basically thought that every single thing imaginable was immoral, including women. He was right. Yet, regardless, and supported by anecdotal evidence of continued population growth, the quest continues for a reason why anyone would seem to care.

Schopenhauer is too often viewed as little more than a commentator on Kant. In fact, he is a pessimistic thinker in his own right (“suffering is the substance of all life”), though he is generally more articulate than the sage of Königsberg:

“Thus nature has equipped women, as it has all its creatures, with the tools and weapons she needs for securing her existence, and at just the time she needs them; in doing which nature has acted with its usual economy. For just as the female ant loses its wings after mating, since they are then superfluous, indeed harmful to the business of raising the family, so the woman usually loses her beauty after one or two childbeds, and probably for the same reason.”
Arthur Schopenhauer. “On Women.” In: Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1970, 80-81.

“As a consequence of her weaker reasoning powers, woman has a smaller share of the advantages and disadvantages these bring with them. She is, rather, a mental myopic…”
Arthur Schopenhauer. “On Women.” In: Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1970, 82-83.

“It is only the man whose intellect is clouded by his sexual instinct that could give that stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged race the name of the fair sex; for the entire beauty of the sex is based on this instinct. One would be more justified in calling them the unaesthetic sex than the beautiful. “
Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Woman is an animal with long hair and short-sighted.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860).

Another analyst like Menander, then, with a pronounced faible for zoological paradigmata. That is what happens if you do not find time to take your children to the zoo yourself. If you let father do it, count on him to draw unflattering analogies – significantly, before reaching the ape house.

“The relationship between man and woman is nothing other than that of subject and object. Man is Something, woman is Nothing.”
Otto Weininger, Schopenhauer’s acolyte (1880-1903).

No wonder that man killed himself in the room where Beethoven had died. Ta-ta-ta-tamm! Now, here’s proof that no such thing as bad publicity exists for untenured philosophers.

For all you trivia lovers, there actually is some Nietzsche beyond the whip. He comes in plenty shades of gray:

“Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

“Behind all their personal vanity, women themselves always have an impersonal contempt for woman.”
Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Woman was God’s second mistake.”
Friedrich Nietzsche. The Antichrist.

“Everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has a single solution: that is, pregnancy.”
Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Still, the Great Whippersnapper may have stumbled onto something late in life:

“Stupid as a man, say the women: cowardly as a woman, say the men. Stupidity in a woman is unwomanly.”
Friedrich Nietzsche.

We can now safely depart from the assorted witticisms of philosophy’s lengthy Blue Period and turn to the likely most truthful scholarly confession made by man to date:

"The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'"
Sigmund Freud in conversation with Marie Bonaparte in 1925, quoted by Jones, Ernest. Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Hogarth Press, London, 1955, Vol. 2, 468.

For a mixed bag of reasons (and advisors), some of the most enlightened summaries today are given by thinkers who recognize that their office rests on a slim and thinking majority of female voters:

“The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women. If it’s educating its girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward. But if women are oppressed and abused and illiterate, then they are going to fall behind.”
Barack Hussein Obama, Ladies’ Home Journal, September 2008.

“This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries. At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities….. The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”
James Earl Carter. Losing My Religion for Equality. July 2009.

Perplexing that one can still find voices who would argue with that circa 2012. C.E.

Sapere aude. A neo-Kantian translation of that might be “go figure”…