There’s a recent article about gun violence in Haiti that features the following quotes:
But the anthropological lesson from Haiti is that the truth is more complex. It isn’t just the technological lethality of guns that makes them dangerous: They also exert a power on human agency. They change us. It is both the technology and the symbolism of a gun that can encourage someone to shoot.
[…] There is a lesson to be gleaned from understanding the supernatural potency of guns. We cannot think about guns and people as separate entities, debating gun restrictions on one hand and mental-health policy on the other. The target of intervention must be the gun-person composite. If we are to truly understand and control gun violence, we need to accept that guns have potent technological and psychological effects on people – effects that inspire violent ways of being and acting in the world.
This article has come in for a great deal of mockery from gunfolks since it issued. Representative bits of snark: “Apparently, the ‘magic’ of a professorship can turn you into an imbecile.”, “Gun owners in US- approx 100 million. If this bozo was right, everyone would be dead.”, and a picture of an AR-15 with speech balloons saying “Pick me up…Shoot me at unarmed people…you are powerless.”
I’m probably going to startle a lot of my readers by asserting that the article is not entirely wrong and gunfolks’ dismissal of it is not entirely right. In fact I’m here to argue that almost the entire quoted paragraph is exactly correct, and the last sentence would be correct if it replaced the word “violent ways” with “both violent and virtuous ways”.
So keep reading…
All tools change their users. A man with an axe is a man who can chop down trees, and may well feel an actual desire to do that, because exerting power can be its own reward. A man with a gun may experience a desire to commit aggressive violence with it; what Chelsey Kivland (the article’s author) misses is that it can potentiate desire to be a defender and prevent aggressive violence.
That’s how I experience carrying a gun, and statistics tell me I am not alone. Ever since Gary Kleck’s pioneering study in the 1990s it has been well understood that in the U.S. defensive gun uses far outnumber criminal ones. Occasional attempts to refute this (such as this one) fallaciously or dishonestly ignore the fact that most DGUs not only don’t involve firing the weapon, they’re never reported to police. By the numbers, personal firearms in the U.S. magnify good more than evil.
But Haiti is not the U.S. Context cannot be ignored. Kivland’s account of the sociology of gun use in Haiti rings pretty true to anyone who’s ever lived in a Third-World country, as I have. If you haven’t, it is worth reading. Guns in the hands of people with the average IQ and time preference of Haitians have different consequences from guns in the hands of people with the average IQ and time preference of Americans. Lethality combines badly with limited capacity for forward planning and poor impulse control.
American gunfolks resist thinking or talking about this, for two different reasons. One is that they fear ceding any rhetorical ground to gun-control advocates. And in an American culture context, with the level of impulse control typical in Americans, the proposition “Guns don’t kill; people do.” is a very defensible one. It takes an exceptionally stupid or drug/alcohol-impaired American to succumb to Kivland’s bad juju and perpetrate an impulse killing just because the gun makes it possible. Among middle-class white Americans this sort of crime is so rare that you’d gave to trawl through police blotters for years to find one.
But my last sentence hints at the other reason that gunfolks don’t want to acknowledge that Kivland has a point. Because it is quite difficult to actually engage her point factually without saying things that will get one (unfairly) tagged as a a racist. And gunfolks already have a problem with their opponents’ eagerness to dismiss them as knuckledragging white supremacists.
But here at Armed & Dangerous we make a point of having no fear, so I’m going to baldly state the relevant numbers. Americans in general: average IQ 100. Black Americans, average IQ 85. Estimates for Haitian average IQ should be taken with a grain of salt but cluster around 67 – I’m going to use that figure as none of the estimates I’ve seen are enough higher for the implications to be very different. Half the people in Kivland’s street scenes are dimmer than that, well into the range of what the DSM-V categorizes as mental retardation.
On that basis you’d expect gun crimes revealing poor impulse control and lack of forward planning to be rather more common among American blacks than American whites, and you’d be right (“He dissed me, so I shot him.”). But they’d be vastly and tragically more common in Haitians, who average dimmer than American blacks by far more than the black-white average IQ gap in the U.S. Compared to the Haitians in Kivland’s street stories, your average black American gangbanger is quite intellectually gifted and forethoughtful.
Which brings us back to bad juju. If you have an IQ of 67 or below – and in the U.S. this is quite unusual outside of mental institutions – it might well be the case that having a weapon in your hand is a kind of reality-distorting, violence-producing magic. Kivland’s account deserves a more respectful hearing than gun-owners in the U.S. are wont to give it. Where she goes wrong is in supposing that the Haitian experience has much to teach us about good policy for populations less handicapped than Haitians.
So, why am I poking this hornet’s nest? The usual reason: I believe those who do not acknowledge the facts about the extent of human variability and IQ distribution will eventually be mugged by them. In particular, if we leave the likes of Kivland to tell compelling stories about Haitian gun violence, and deny the truth they carry about the nexus of guns and poor impulse control, we leave ourselves vulnerable to being outflanked in the public conversation.
The truth is, just saying “Guns don’t kill people!” isn’t enough. Because most people understand that a man with an axe in his hand can become attracted to the thought of chopping down trees. That intuition fits their own experience of being tool-users. We’re trying to tell them something that they know is not entirely true.
That’s not a safe mistake to make when certain political tendencies constantly strive to disarm us. For the sake of our own liberty, and for the sake of our unarmed neighbors who rely on us more than they know to prevent a range of ills from crime up through civil disorder to totalitarian takeover, we have a duty not to let ourselves be outflanked this way.
To meet Kivland’s analysis head-on, we have to be willing to say, straight up, that it does not apply to a population averaging 33 IQ points higher than the Haitian mean, and we have to be clear about why: the readily observable correlation between IQ and time preference. Smarter people know better. They plan better. They’re less prone to self-destructive behavior.
Thankfully, we even get to say her analysis doesn’t apply all that well to American blacks at only 18 points above the Haitian mean. Maintaining that won’t keep grievance-peddlers from yelling “racist!” at us, but nothing else (including ignoring the issue) will either. The position we have to take, and have nerves of steel about holding, is that average IQ matters a lot and skin color not even a little. Helpfully, this is true.
The “Guns don’t kill people; people do!” shibboleth had actually been bothering me for years before Kivland’s article brought my misgivings into focus. Literally it’s completely true, but in the Gricean way of engaging the strongest possible version of your opponent’s arguments it is not quite sufficient. That’s the kernel of truth in Kivland’s argument, and we have a duty to deal with it.