Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gun control and alcohol

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The Second Amendment

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

The Eighteenth Amendment

The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

The Twenty-first Amendment

It's been a long time since I posted and November is a good month for controversy, so I thought I'd write about the regulation of guns and alcohol. 

Maybe three years ago, driving home from my dad's house on Christmas Eve, I had a discussion with my brother Tom and his wife Kelsey comparing gun ownership and alcohol use. We never reached a conclusion but it has been on my mind ever since. 

Certain issues seem to preclude rational discussion. I'm not sure what makes an issue untouchable. It doesn't seem to be how personal it is or if the outcome of the discussion has any bearing on your life. I can talk about God, gay marriage, evolution, and President Obama without hesitation across idealogical lines, but something warns me to wait until I know my audience before bringing up climate change, Hillary Clinton, or defunding the military.

Nevertheless, as we drove through slushy Spanish Fork that night, we started talking about the second most inflammatory subject of them all (the first being abortion). As happens in such discussions, we quickly stopped listening to each other and instead focused on feeling outraged and flummoxed by how another thinking being could hold a different opinion on such an obvious issue.

After my turn to talk was over and while pretending to listen, the following thought occurred to me: Why is gun ownership and regulation in its own category in my head? Is it any different from other risky behaviors like alcohol consumption, automobile use, or back-country skiing? The agitated fog that usually surrounds talk of guns started to lift and I saw the issue in a new light. There are risks inherent in gun ownership, as there are with many other behaviors, and regulation should be proportional to that risk.

Seeing a potential path towards mutual understanding, I asked Kelsey what she thought about alcohol consumption (a pastime she enjoys responsibly). She pointed out several benefits associated with alcohol, including social interactions, artisan craftsmanship, and cultural tradition, and implied that the negative impacts are due to irresponsible use, not the substance itself. She insisted that drinking was inherently different than gun ownership, which was intrinsically violent and dangerous. They dropped me off at my mom's house and I slept in the room I grew up in with my wife and two children waiting for Christmas morning.

All of us engage in risky behaviors. However, we tend to overestimate cost and underestimate value when judging other people's risky choices. Smokers and skateboarders are engaging in reckless behavior with high risk and very little benefit (says I the non-smoker and reformed long boarder). Conversely, we see the benefits of our choices more readily than the costs. For example, the dangers inherent to mountain biking and mountaineering are far outweighed by those activities' health, spiritual, and environmental benefits. This gets complicated when you get a big group of people together with different risk tolerances and double standards in perception.

The Abbott family engaging in what is certainly considered by many to be unacceptably risky behavior.

The kids love the wind in their hair though, and you just can't get that with a helmet (unless you are talking about this helmet).

I am not suggesting that there is no collective way to evaluate and mitigate risk. This is one of the major roles of government in any society. The point of most laws is to define the appropriate balance between personal liberty and communal safety when the two are at odds. Statistics, stories, and ideological affiliation all inform our individual and communal assessments, though these factors don't all carry equal weight. What we believe we should believe (based on family and friends) shapes what statistics and stories we seek out and what we accept or reject.

So what about booze and what about guns? How risky are they? I've assembled a variety of gun and alcohol statistics (with a few bike an car stats thrown in for context) based on ostensibly neutral, conservative, and liberal sources. Here is the executive summary (see the spreadsheet in the link above for citations):


  • 221 million Americans (67%) drink alcohol an average of four drinks per week 
  • The American alcohol industry is worth $400 billion 
  • $59.4 billion in annual revenue
  • Money spent by industry lobbying federal politicians in 2013: $15.8 million
  • Alcohol causes 80 - 85 thousand deaths annually in the U.S. 
    • 10,000 from impaired driving
    • 16,000 from liver damage
    • 20,000 from alcohol-related cancers
    • 34,000 from alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related violence, accidents, and other causes
  • Estimated societal cost of death and injury: $223.5 billion ($677 for each U.S. citizen)
  • Death and injury cost percentage of annual revenue: 376% ($223.5/$59.4)
  • 3.6 deaths annually per 100,000 users
  • 3.2% of all deaths in U.S.
  • 155 million Americans (47%) live in a home with a gun and 108 (33%) own a gun personally
  • The American gun industry is worth $32 billion
  • $6 billion in annual revenue
  • Money spent by industry lobbying federal politicians in 2013: $12.1 million
  • Guns cause 29 - 31 thousand deaths annually in the U.S.
    • 10,000 from homicide (75% of homicides involved handguns)
    • 19,000 from suicide
  • Estimated societal cost of death and injury: $153.3 billion ($465 for each U.S. citizen)
  • Death and injury cost percentage of annual revenue: 2,555% ($153.3/$6)
  • 2.3 deaths annually per 100,000 users
  • 1.2% of all deaths in U.S.


  • 99 million Americans (30%) own a bicycle
  • $7.3 billion in annual sales
  • Bikes result in 600-700 deaths annually in the U.S.
  • Estimated societal cost of death and injury: $4 billion ($12 for each U.S. citizen)
  • Death and injury cost percentage of annual revenue: 56% ($4/$7.3)
  • 0.66 deaths annually per 100,000 users
  • 0.03% of all deaths in U.S.

So, alcohol kills more people (in absolute terms and as percent of all users) and costs the U.S. almost four times its annual revenue in deaths and injuries (if you care about that). Guns kill slightly fewer people (as a percent of all users) but the monetary cost of deaths and injury is over twenty-five times what the industry generates (again, if you care about that). All in all, I was surprised at how similarly dangerous these two Constitutionally-protected activities are.

Two things stood out while compiling these numbers. First there are lots of conflicting and contradictory  estimates on some subjects. For example, estimates of the number of instances guns are used in self defense annually vary from 60,000 to 3.5 million (two orders of magnitude!). The actual number (which still is uncertain) is likely close to 100,000. Second, lobbying by the gun industry more than doubled this year. It has been relatively stable, staying between $4 and $6 million over the past 15 years. This year when it reached more than $12 million. What is going on?

So, what is the point of this post? Am I defending guns, attacking alcohol, or just saying that you are way safer on a bike than you are drinking or owning a gun (way way safer than if you are drinking and owning a gun)? My goals are three-fold. First, point out that gun ownership is a risky behavior, just like many others, and we don't have to not be friends if we don't agree where the line should be drawn between safety and liberty. Second, we should acknowledge the risks that accompany our choices. We tend to downplay the costs of what we want to do and focus on perceived benefits. Third, a lot of our arguments for or against guns and alcohol are kinda non-sensical (dumb). If you are in favor of guns or alcohol, acknowledge that you consider the benefits to outweigh the costs, but don't imply that your behavior doesn't have any costs. I will leave you with a list of good and bad arguments for and against guns and booze (I'm categorizing arguments by logical merit, not by if I agree with them), and a brief statement of my position.

Good argument: There are legitimate uses of guns that can be a positive part of an individual's family's recreation and culture.

Good argument: Responsible consumption of alcohol can be a positive component of an individual or family's recreation and culture.

Bad argument: Chicago and New York have some of the nation's strictest gun laws and they have some of the highest rates of gun violence. Reason: Without a timeline you can't establish causation here. The gun laws are likely a response to a gun violence problem, not the other way around.

Bad argument: More gun control will automatically result in lower gun violence. Reason: Violence in general is complex and there are a lot of guns in the system. Effects of any legislation will have large lags (potentially decades).

Bad argument: Periods with high gun control aren't safer than periods with low gun control. Reason: See answer to previous bad argument.

Bad argument: Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Reason: There is strong evidence linking access to guns with suicide risk and over 230,000 guns are reported stolen each year. As Eddie Izzard says, "The National Rifle Association says, 'Guns don't kill people, people do.' But I think the gun helps, you know?"

Bad argument: We tried banning alcohol once and it didn't work. Reason: During prohibition, deaths due to liver disease decreased by 2/3 (since we don't know the rate of clandestine alcohol consumption during this period, this is the most direct measure of alcohol use available).

Bad argument: An armed society is a polite society. Reason: First off, even if this cliche was coined by one of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein (in a novel), I'd certainly rather live in an impolite society where I'm less likely to get gunned down by someone who finds my behavior impolite. The idea of increasing politeness by implied threat of killing is as anti-liberty as any tenet I've encountered.

Bad argument: Crime is sky-rocketing and it's so dangerous on the streets that we need guns for self defense. Reason: Crime rates have fallen 30-40% in most areas in the U.S. over the past two decades. It is safer now than ever before.

Bad argument: Gun ownership and number of guns in the U.S. are causing a rise in crime and violence. Reason: See answer for previous bad argument.

OK argument: Medical research suggests some health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Reason: There is no way alcohol saves more lives than it takes, but for individuals who are capable of responsible use there are some potential benefits.

OK argument: Guns are used approximately 100,000 times a year in self defense and certainly protect some number of lives and property each year (most of these uses are brandishing not firing of the weapon). Reason: We don't have the data to draw conclusions about whether guns save more lives than they take. Thousands of people die from gun violence yearly and some number are saved by guns.

Bad argument: People can get addicted to anything like exercise or eating. Alcohol is no different than other things. Reason: I personally know dozens of people whose lives or livelihoods have been destroyed by alcohol. I have one friend who exercises too much and a couple who are addicted to World of Warcraft.

So, what would I do with booze and guns if I were king? I would outlaw advertising for alcohol and guns. People can use them if they want, but companies shouldn't be able to push dangerous products (especially not to poor people and children). I would also forbid donations to politicians and political groups. In my opinion it's a strange system of sanctioned bribery dressed up as free speech. Training and licensing should be required for both activities. I would also require all people considering purchasing a semi-truck to watch this advertisement:

What do you think?


  1. I think you should address my favorite argument for guns: if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. It's a bumper sticker, does that make it a bad argument? Or is the logic really faulty? It seems solid to me, as a huge portion of gun violence is perpetrated by people who are above (or below, somehow outside of) The Law. Would stricter laws, background checks and less advertising really have any impact on those parts of society? And for the record, I wish both guns AND alcohol just didn't exist and I detest defending either. Personally I'm much more inclined toward the type of risky behavior exhibited in your family photos and get pretty defensive when its worthiness is called into question. I will wholeheartedly sign any anti-campaign petitions that should come my way but I do believe fervently in agency (as I can tell you do). I just wish that we the people were better stewards of said agency.

    I can't believe Robert Heinlein is one of your favorite authors. I just got halfway through Stranger in a Strange Land and could not bear the 60's-ness of it any more. But maybe I just couldn't get past my offended inner feminist.

  2. where do a man's penis and testicles go when he does the splits?

  3. i believe that black belts should also be prohibited. the number and availability of black belts in the US is high and rising. statistically, you're more like to get in a fight with a bunch of black belts than you are riding a bicycle. how will our children and loved ones ever be safe when rogue black belts roam the street freely and instigate flailing matches? (see video for violent proof - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3LVrVtbrPk) follow me on twitter @nomoblackbelts

  4. re wool.gov: Holy cow those blackbelts are terrifying. If I hadn't joint Twitter just for the extra space on DropBox I would follow you Woolley.

    re Rachel: I can't do the splits and have no idea

    re abby o: Your point has some truth in it. I think the main issue is, no one is talking about outlawing guns. The NRA and other groups try to imply that the federal government is always on the point of raiding people houses to take away guns in the middle of the night. There is no evidence to suggest this is the case (good article in Time Magazine on how there has been no substantive legislation restricting guns for the past 20 years here: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2120498,00.html). So yes, if the government took away all law abiding citizen's guns then we would only have outlaws with guns (though I suggest that those outlaws would carry guns less often in that case). But if we require reasonable licensing (can't be crazy, can't have a violent record, can't buy bazookas), then fewer guns will be circulating in the system in the hands of higher-risk individuals and we all benefit.

    I think there is also a big cultural benefit of passing reasonable gun control legislation (limited clips, no assault weapons etc.) in that it communicates, "We understand that you like guns, but you don't need that to be safe." I do not believe assault rifles, machine guns, or hand guns make us safer or represent a meaningful expression of freedom (my personal opinions are coming out here more than in the original post :) ). But that's what the point of this post is about, lets talk about where to draw the line--not imply that the other side are fascists or psychos.

  5. I thought you were lost in the wilderness or something and you couldn't post to your blog. Glad to see a new post :)

    I feel that laws based on a statistical probability lead us down a bad path. They provide punishments for actions that have not harmed anyone, just that you might harm someone, that you might infringe on someone else's right to life and liberty. They make actions illegal based on a "may", "might", "likely", or "maybe."

    Example of where this line of thought leads me: Above you did a cost benefit analysis on the biking, alcohol, and guns industries. I wonder where the sugar/sweetener industry would fall among this spectrum? Diabetes is a modern lifestyle disease thanks mainly to the high availability of quickly metabolized carbs. Diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, cost the United States $245 billion in 2012. The benefit side of this equation is iffy because fast carbs come in so many forms: white bread/rice, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, beer, etc. I estimated the revenue from the sweetener industry to be $39 billion. (reference here). Death and injury cost percentage $245/$39 = 628%. This is of course assuming sugar and other caloric sweeteners are the only source of diabetes, which is not true, but you see my point. Sugar is harming you and me even if we don't consume one ounce of it because of the economic impact. Therefore we should have legislation restricting the sale and use of high sugar products because the consumption of sugar is statistically more likely to cause diabetes and a consequence thereof may have an impact on me.

    I tend to lean towards not restricting the ownership of an item that can inflict harm on someone else (guns, knifes, axes, pressure cookers, booze, Suburbans) but to provide severe consequences to those that have shown that they will harm others either through direct actions, or negligence.

    When you are king you should add medications to your list of items banned from advertising.

    1. Interesting points Ryan. I completely agree about advertising and medications (advertising to both patients and doctors) and I'd throw in advertising unhealthy treats to kids too :).

      In reply to your diabetes comparison. There is a good breakdown of "modifiable behavioral risk factors" (or deaths/injuries that could be avoided by changes in behavior) here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15010446?dopt=Abstract. Tobacco is first (435K deaths), poor diet and physical activity is next (365K deaths--one thousand deaths per day), and alcohol is third (85K deaths).

      One thing to clarify, the $39 billion for the sweetener industry you cite is annual revenue, whereas the numbers for alcohol and guns were originally industry worth (infrastructure, employees, non-tangibles etc). I've added a row in the tables above with annual revenue so we can compare. This yields a cost to revenue ratio for bikes of 56% ($4/$7.3) for alcohol of 376% ($223.5/$59.4), and for guns of 2,555% ($153.3/$6). It's important to note however, that in my opinion this is not the best way to evaluate risk! We should be weighing risk against societal good and revenue does not equal societal good (at least not on a 1 to 1 basis). We should compare how much enjoyment, benefit, happiness, and improvement of quality of life is associated with a behavior and compare that to the behavior's negative impacts on these same parameters.

      One question for you. If not statistics and data on risk, what information should we base our regulation decisions on as a society?

    2. That makes more sense about the revenue vs industry worth, I thought that $39 billion seemed low considering how much sugar/sweeteners we eat as a nation.

      I think regulations should be formed on analysis, risk data, and statistics like you said, but it is the enforcement laws that shouldn't be. Let's use speed limits as an example of what I mean. Speed limits are determined from design elements of the road and take into account the location of the road, traffic, structures around the road, and etc. Now lets say you go 26 mph in a 25 mph zone. You are breaking the law and any police officer has the right to pull you over, issue you a ticket, and get some revenue for his department. I don't think anyone has ever been pulled over for going 1 mph of the speed limit, but you could technically under the current structure. The law punishes you for the mere act of traveling at a given speed when no one has been harmed. The law should be such that if you exceed the speed limit and get into some accident then you are hosed.

      Note that I am in full support of speed limits and many can attest to my strict adherence to them, but a speeding ticket is punishment for a victim-less crime. Same could be applied to stop lights at 3 am. Do you really deserve a ticket for slowly rolling through a red light at an empty intersection? A ticket that you have to pay or suffer the consequences such as getting a warrant issued for you arrest.

      Regulations are there to keep us safe and should be followed most of the time. But the current requirement of strict, blind adherence to them communicates to society that they are considered to not have the intelligence to act responsibly.

      I first came across this idea when reading an article about Obamacare and the point of the article was that under the law you are now required to have insurance because you might need medical care and you might not be able to pay for it. If you don't have insurance you have to pay a fine, regardless of whether you ever go to the doctor or not.

      I was taken aback when I first read it, but as I've mulled it over in my mind I've started to see the logic.

    3. So you see a distinction between preventative and responsive regulation? I'm not sure I agree that we can't ever enforce preventative measures based on probability. As a cyclist I can say that speeding (even when I'm not hit by the offending motorist) is not a victimless crime. Their choice increases my risk of bodily harm significantly. Waiting till someone gets run over until you issue a ticket seems like a bad policy for all involved from my perspective :).

      As for Obamacare (or the army, DOT, or car insurance), I'm reminded of section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants (sorry to go all biblical on you--well, kind of biblical):

      "We believe ... that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience."

      Securing the public interest certainly involves legislation that serves the communal good (most people will need medical attention at some point in their lives and that needs to be paid for somehow).

      Interesting question though--if different criteria should apply to preventative vs. punitive consequences.

    4. I agree about speeding cars when I'm on my bike to work. I'm always miffed by careless drivers. Sometimes biking gives me more road rage than driving :) I don't think merely getting a ticket for running over a cyclist due to reckless driving is an appropriate punishment. For this system to work you would need to have punishments that deliver real consequences. But if you take that to the extreme you would have everyone living in total fear that they might accidentally violate some law and cause someone harm. It would have to be reasonable. I'm not sure how such a system would work, but I don't think no speeding tickets would equate to everyone speeding. I think it would require more diligence and responsibility on the part of the individual.

  6. I love your careful reasoning. One argument you don't include is that moderate drinking has health benefits that might well balance some of the ill effects. Additionally, beer tastes better than guns do.

    1. Yo Pops. That is listed up there as an "OK" argument. There is medical evidence for some benefit, but I see that in the same category as the argument that guns save some lives. Both statements are likely true but we don't have the data to make adequate comparisons with the costs (which are more constrained).

      Can't speak to the taste of beer and guns though :).

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful discussion. I really appreciate how you endeavor to apply more objective analysis than most people. These are very emotionally charged subjects.

    You did not really get into the risky behavior that I get the most worried about-- cars.

    Motor vehicle traffic deaths
    Number of deaths: 33,687
    Deaths per 100,000 population: 10.9

    If I were King, I would build high speed trains along all the interstate highways and ban cars that went over 25 miles per hour. Also I would install breathalizers in cars and some kind of device to block text messaging while the car was moving. Besides being concerned about safety, I think it sounds really lovely to be able to sit back in a train and watch the landscape zoom by while reading a book on our way to grandmother's house. Far preferable to white-knuckling past a semi.


    1. You've got my endorsement. Though are you really a king if you get voted in?

      The secondary environmental, social, and quality of life effects of cars are substantial too. Lots of disrupted habitat, dead deer and birds, loud neighborhoods, and unhealthy air from our automobiles.

    2. I second that. I was wishing for a train while we were driving to Thanksgiving at the in-laws. I always tread that long drive across the barren desert, it would be much better on a train with a book in hand. Plus trains can be so much more fuel efficient than cars. I was dreaming up a "drive-in" train so that you would have access to a vehicle once you got to your destination.

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful discussion. I really appreciate how you endeavor to apply more objective analysis than most people. But air rifles are no harmful to use air rifles insure your self protection. Air rifles use for safety

  9. Bought the semi-truck. And promise not to drive it drunk with a loaded shotgun.

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  11. I hate to admit it, but I am guilty of doing my research online, finding a retailer to go see and experience the product, then going back online to find a deal. It's the world we live in. best gun safe