Monday 14 January 2013

How about Obama's cajones?

In the US every year, guns kill almost as many people as cars do. Many of those victims are children, and many of those tragedies happen at home. If you compare the rational licencing controls on driving a car with the lax controls on owning and carrying a gun in the US, you feel sick.

So it may seem reassuring that there's broad public support in the US for more effective gun control. In a recent Pew poll, 85% of US respondents support background checks for private and gun show sales, 80% support banning gun sales to the mentally ill, 67% support a federal database to track gun sales, 64% support armed guards in schools, 58% support a ban on semi-automatic weapons, 55% support a ban on assault-style weapons, and 54% support a ban on high-capacity gun clips. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found even stronger support for gun control.

Yes, you have to worry about that mental illness question. Error rates in psychiatric diagnosis run about 25%. That's at least 2,500% higher than the percentage of mentally ill people who kill themselves or others with guns. Prognostic predictions by psychiatrists are even worse. The simplest Bayesian arithmetic shows how useless such a program would be.

And you have to worry too about armed guards in schools. Would you send your child to a school where the guards are armed?

And the Pew poll revealed an interesting divide. Respondents with high school education or less are 31% more supportive of armed guards in schools. Did we know that the NRA view that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" plays best to the less well educated?

Still, the polls are clear, the US public wants more gun control, even if two of the controls they favour look dodgy.

Will the US public's preferences translate into effective legislation? Well, about two-thirds of the US public wanted a public option in health care, but the health and insurance industries would have none of it; they made sure no such legislation made it to the floor of Congress, and Obama refused to fight for it. 

Likewise, about two-thirds of the US public wants gun control, but the lobby for 5,400 gun manufacturers has the same kind of stranglehold on Congress. A couple of weeks ago, I asked if there were enough Congressional cajones to pass effective gun controls. Since then, only about a dozen Republicans have publicly broken ranks with the NRA. Not nearly enough.

Then does it come down to whether Obama is Chamberlain or Churchill?

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