OSD 182: The value of being hard to bust
There was a story out of New Jersey a few days ago where a marketing director at a hospital got caught keeping a bunch of guns at work. From the New York Times:
A New Jersey hospital’s marketing director stockpiled an assault rifle fitted with a high-capacity magazine along with dozens of other guns and ammunition in an unlocked closet at his workplace, the police said on Tuesday.
The cache of weapons was found after Hudson Regional Hospital in Seacaucus, N.J. got a call last month warning of a bomb there, the police said. The threat turned out to be a hoax, but a police dog involved in a safety sweep of the hospital led officers to the guns, officials said.
If you read on, what happened is that the guy was storing 11 handguns and 27 long guns in a closet at work. The guns were all legal under New Jersey law except for a Kriss Vector, the standard-cap mag in it, and a separate standard-cap handgun mag that the police found. So they charged him with three counts of possession crimes.
There are very few details at this point. Just for the sake of discussion, let’s treat it as a lens into the pros and cons of perhaps-foolishly-but-not-maliciously breaking rules you disagree with. But keep in mind the caveat that more details could emerge that change the tone of this case.
With that caveat tucked away, just imagine that what we have here is a guy who, say, has a spouse or cohabitant who doesn’t want guns in house. So he thought to himself, “I know the hospital wouldn’t want me to store my sweet gun collection in a closet at work, but I’ve got to keep it somewhere. It’s against the rules, but nobody is ever going to know. No harm no foul.” Then he has the cosmic bad luck of a police dog stumbling onto his stash while doing a sweep for a nonexistent bomb.
How should we think about his decision?
This is really just an example of a broad class of questions in regulated spaces: the unwritten rules about when to break the written rules.
One approach you see to this is “free men don’t ask”. That has curb appeal, but taken literally and done publicly, it would get you jailed quickly. If you believe you are an effective advocate for gun rights, then you owe it to yourself and the community to not throw your freedom (i.e. your effectiveness) away lightly. Effective people are hard to bust.
The opposite naive approach is to assume the easiest way to be hard to bust is to scrupulously follow the law. But at the margin, that turns out not to be so easy. There are multiple states where the letter of the law is that it’s illegal to stop for a coffee on the way home from the pistol range. Throughout the US, concealed carriers often have to choose between respecting every single no-carry sign or leaving their gun unsecured in their car. And how well does the median gun owner in the AWB states actually know the details of the laws they’re subject to?
So there’s a tradeoff to navigate. In “OSD 114: One size fits each”, we framed it like this:
While someone may recognize the social value of civil disobedience, they might not be willing to personally bear the risks of delivering that value. That’s uncomfortable, and potentially even shameful. And as each person in a community navigates that internal discomfort, they each find their own personal risk tolerance threshold. When people with different thresholds try to decide whose threshold is “right”, an argument happens.
And you know what? That’s fine. It’s good, even. People with high risk tolerance forge a path. That’s awesome. Some will pay off and some won’t. That is a discovery process to efficiently identify the best paths forward. People with low risk tolerance will fall in once effective paths are mapped. And sure, it’d be better to have more support earlier, but the other side of that coin is that people need to pick their battles. They can’t sustainably pick fights they’re guaranteed to lose.
So the optimal community-level strategy is that each person picks the (metaphorical) battle where they personally are going to be effective.
The Slate Star Codex classic “Kolmogorov Complicity and the Parable of Lightning” explores the right way to effectiveness-optimize your way around unwritten rules. One option is the one in the title:
Scott Aaronson writes about the the Kolmogorov option (suggested alternate title: “Kolmogorov complicity”). Mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov lived in the Soviet Union at a time when true freedom of thought was impossible. He reacted by saying whatever the Soviets wanted him to say about politics, while honorably pursuing truth in everything else. As a result, he not only made great discoveries, but gained enough status to protect other scientists, and to make occasional very careful forays into defending people who needed defending. He used his power to build an academic bubble where science could be done right and where minorities persecuted by the communist authorities (like Jews) could do their work in peace.
Another option is more pure and naive:
Kantorovich was another Russian mathematician. He was studying linear optmization problems when he realized one of his results had important implications for running planned economies. He wrote the government a nice letter telling them that they were doing the economy all wrong and he could show them how to do it better. The government at this point happened to be Stalin during his “kill anybody who disagrees with me in any way” phase. Historians are completely flabbergasted that Kantorovich survived, and conjecture that maybe some mid-level bureaucrat felt sorry for him and erased all evidence the letter had ever existed. He was only in his 20s at the time, and it seems like later on he got more sophisticated and was able to weather Soviet politics about as well as anybody.
How could such a smart guy make such a stupid mistake? My guess: the Soviet government didn’t officially say “We will kill anyone who criticizes us”. They officially said “Comrade Stalin loves freedom and welcomes criticism from his fellow citizens”, and you had to have some basic level of cynicism and social competence to figure out that wasn’t true.
Even if the Soviet government had been more honest and admitted they were paranoid psychopaths, the exact implications aren’t clear. Kantorovich was a professor, he was writing about a very abstract level of economics close to his area of expertise, and he expressed his concerns privately to the government. Was that really the same as some random hooligan shouting “I hate Stalin!” on a street corner? Surely there were some highly-placed professors of unquestionable loyalty who had discussed economics with government officials before. Even a savvier version of Kantorovich would have to consider complicated questions of social status, connections, privileges, et cetera. The real version of Kantorovich showed no signs of knowing any of those issues even existed.
If you think it’s impossible to be that oblivious, you’re wrong. Every couple of weeks, I have friends ask me “Hey, do you know if I could get in trouble for saying [THING THAT THEY WILL DEFINITELY GET IN TROUBLE FOR SAYING]?” When I stare at them open-mouthed, they follow with “Well, what if I start by specifying that I’m not a bad person and I just honestly think it might be true?” I am half-tempted to hire babysitters for these people to make sure they’re not sending disapproving letters to Stalin in their spare time.
In gun land, the Kantorovich option is to say, “Sure officer, you’re welcome to search my vehicle” during a traffic stop on the way home from the range. “I’m not doing anything wrong so I have nothing to hide.”
What’s the solution?
Where the SSC essay lands is a whisper network. A group of people you can talk to in private to understand the written rules, the unwritten ones, and where both of the above can safely be bent or circumnavigated.
In the case of guns, the good news is that that whisper network exists. It’s called the internet. Thirty years ago, info about carry laws was VHS lore. The NFA was a dark art known only to level 20 mages. Today there are new threads every day from people reporting their on-the-ground experience with unwritten rules. The rules will ebb and flow over time. But your tools to navigate those rules will only get better.
This week’s links
Are you in the SF Bay area and interested in coming to an OSD range day?
Reply to this email for details! We’re hosting a full-day pistol course on September 24.
Ava Flanell interviewing Chuck about gun stuff and Chuck’s 11 years at Facebook.
First, big kudos to this person for sharing their experience for others to learn from. Second, this is a useful refutation of the idea that a gun can be rendered 100% inert by being placed in a holster.
OSD office hours
If you’re a new gun owner, thinking about becoming one, or know someone who is, come to OSD office hours. It’s a free 30-minute video call with an OSD team member to ask any and all your questions.
Like what we’re doing? You can support us at the link below.
And the best kind of support is to rock some merch and spread the word. Top-quality hats, t-shirts, and patches.
Thanks for reading Open Source Defense! Subscribe to get a new post every Monday.