Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gun Control

I'm going to try to bring this around to statistics, although I'm not sure how successful I'll be. This is an incredibly divisive issue - fortunately nobody reads my blog so this is really just getting my thoughts down.

First, a disclaimer: I know how to shoot, and enjoy shooting. I don't own any guns. My father owned several pistols growing up, and I learned gun safety from him. I was in the army for five years, and in two trips to Iraq I never had to fire my M16 at a target that wasn't paper, although I once had to chamber a round to get an Iraqi to stop advancing. I would have shot at them, and I'm incredibly glad that I didn't have to.

Guns are devices that allow a person to launch a projectile at hundreds of miles per hour. They are portable, some are concealable, and some have incredibly rapid rates of continuous fire. Firearms vary significantly in their various abilities, but they all share that same basic principle - launching of a projectile at high speeds.

There are strong similarities between guns and automobiles as to their lethality and ability to cause damage. The biggest differentiating factor though is the portability of firearms. Concealing a car is a challenge to say the least.

The other differentiating factor is that guns are designed to kill people and animals. There is very little other use for them. Sure, there's sport shooting and target practice, but they have always been designed and constructed with lethal effects in mind. Cars transport things - that's their primary purpose. Automobiles can be used to hurt and kill, but they really aren't designed for that the way firearms are.

Firearms are one of the things that fall under Arthur C. Clark's law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A few centuries ago pistols and rifles would have seemed like the most amazing magic. I think of Zeus and his ability to kill anyone he could see with a lightning bolt - guns are not much different, really. Guns could easily be considered "godlike" power.

We have these devices that allow us to kill rapidly, at long range, and repeatedly. Gun control implies that we have the ability to distinguish people who are capable of dealing with this responsibility from those who don't.

I don't believe that's possible.

If having a gun could be considered a godlike power, how much more godlike is the power to decide who can have that power? And if humans are not capable of dealing with the lesser power of having a gun, how much farther are we from being responsible enough for the control of that power.

Turning to data science: we can write functions that given relevant features can predict amazing things. We can predict who is most likely to buy a product and who is most likely to be successful in the rest of their lives. We can do so with eighty to ninety percent accuracy. We can also predict who can best survive an accident like the Titanic. There are limits, however.

There is no function in the world that will prevent things like Sandy Hook. I wish there were. I believe that there are some things that are simply out of our control.

There's a lot of people that disagree with me, and they seem to be divided into two camps. One camp believes that removing all guns will stop things like this from happening. The other side believes that having more guns will keep these tragedies from repeating.

I read something (can't find source) that talked about how when things like Sandy Hook happen, we have a knee-jerk reaction to try and control them. We have to try and impose order; to try and keep horrible things from repeating. Horrible things happen. We can't really stop them. If we can reduce the number that would be great; but I've seen way too many statistics on both sides that show correlations - and very little actual science.

As humans, we attribute causes to things that really don't make sense. Humans always have. I'd like to be smarter about that, and dig into the cause of things - explore why such things happen and actually figure out ways to reduce them. The problem is that all the statistics in the world become meaningless next to the magnitude of a tragedy like this.

Even if we were to be able to understand why people kill others (and I feel confident in saying that some of these incidents are completely indecipherable - there's no logical reasons that explain why a person would shoot up a school) we have to ask: is ninety percent accuracy acceptable?

How would you tell a father that statistically there was no way to prevent the death of his son?

I know I couldn't.

Maybe there are people out there stronger than me. Maybe there are people who can read about Sandy Hook and not want to cry. I'm not one of them.

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