OSD 111: When what counts is what’s uncountable

Math is something, but it's not everything.

We were talking in group chat this week about this NYT op-ed. Nothing too surprising — it repeats some misleading numbers that you’re familiar with, calls for various restrictions, etc. So we started picking apart the statistical arguments.

And that’s a common mode, isn’t it. After a while you might even start defaulting to a statistical mode. If someone makes a bad statistical point, you jump in to correct it. That can be a good thing. But it’s not the only way to think about these things.

Think about this through the lens of some different constitutional topics:

  • First Amendment: severe restrictions on the government’s ability to restrict speech

  • Fourth Amendment: in principle, makes it hard for police to search the persons or property of those they suspect of committing crimes

  • Fifth and Sixth Amendments: a laundry list of onerous procedural impediments to trying and convicting someone of a crime

There’s a startling property that all of those have: if you analyze them from an epidemiological mindset, these ideas seem completely nuts. The entire, explicit purpose of these uberlaws is to stop the government from doing what it genuinely thinks is best. So if you believe that the process of figuring out “what is best” is just a math problem, and your math is settled, then roadblocks will seem silly. In this worldview, the easy part is figuring out what is best. The hard part is just dragging along all those silly people who don’t like your math.

The problem, of course, is that the most important things in life are not measurable in this way. It would be easy to count up how many crimes go unsolved because of the Fourth Amendment. But it’s also easy to see how thinking of it that way misses the point. It’s a domain where the costs are countable, but the benefits aren’t.

Guns work the same way. It sells gun ownership short to accept the framing that guns are first and foremost a statistical question. Stats are important, sure. And particularly for fence-sitters, a statistical discussion can make people more receptive to philosophical stuff. But if the most important things you want to encourage in gun culture can’t be captured with stats, then stats aren’t the most important thing.

In a world where everything’s reducible to statistics, and nothing counts if it’s not legible through a spreadsheet, the easy part is figuring out what is best. In all other worlds, that’s the hard part. We figure it out by talking about whys and about values, learning about each other, and building culture together. Stats help us get there, but remember that they’re just a small piece of the story.

This week’s links

Iowa becomes the 19th state to move to permitless carry

In 2021, Utah and Montana already became #17-18. Iowa just became #19, and Indiana and Tennessee are poised to become #20-21. So 10% of the states in the country, just this year. We're likely 2 years away from a majority of states having constitutional carry.

A handy graphic from “No Lawyers – Only Guns and Money” reader Rob Vance:

Four sociological drivers of shooting deaths

These aren’t the only relevant issues, but it’s a good idea to be skeptical of any framework that doesn’t include them prominently.

March 2021 set yet another all-time record for monthly gun sales

A new record had most recently been set in January 2021, and five months in 2020 set numbers higher than any month in any previous year.

Philly gun arrests are on a record pace, but convictions drop

Some of these arrests definitely involve people who’ve done something prison-worthy. But it’s impossible to know who in advance that is, unless it’s a repeat offender. Given that, being upset about the low conviction rate is uncomfortably close to being upset that more young, predominantly-minority men aren’t being imprisoned for what is ultimately an administrative offense. If possession by a nonviolent felon wasn’t prohibited and Pennsylvania had constitutional carry, many of these arrests would have no reason to happen.

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