A Case Against Gun Control

The NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch has been speaking out against gun reform in the wake of the deadliest school shooting in American history. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Previously in this series:

What’s the mail like from those who reject the need for new gun laws? Here are two samples. The first is — unfortunately, but realistically—representative in its tone and argumentative style of most of the dissenting messages that have arrived:

No mass shootings else where? China...Mao...unarmed public....millions killed

Russia....gulag....KGB...unknown number killed....unarmed public

Balkans....Serb nationalism....thousands killed....unarmed public

You can argue both sides until you are blue in the face, but the way this country's government acts I want to be able to protect those I love and my property.

I also believe that this country has turned away from the concepts that made it great. The media has been complicit in this by promoting "headline" horror stories to increase market share or to scoop others.

The latest shooting has just as much or more to do with the mental health crisis in this country than guns, but let's blame an inanimate item and not the user. It's part of the failure to make people take responsibility for their actions that is condoned by politicians and media both.

To truly fix societies problems is our greatest challenge, using a type of firearm to blame ALL societies ills is not going to solve anything. If you are not promoting a broad fix to a social problem then you are promoting a narrow "headline" grabbing stance, then on to the next"headline".

Americans are letting others think for them i.e. jump on any bandwagon. People need to think for themselves, the most underused human organ these days is the brain

To the reader’s last point I say: Amen.


A different kind of argument comes from a reader who contrasts my enthusiasm, as a small-plane pilot, for the “right to fly,” with my skepticism of AR-15 owners’ right to enjoy, use, or even possess their weapons. The reader says:

In response to your notes on the AR-15’s I think the pro-AR or at least neutral AR position comes down to that despite the high profile shooting, the actual deaths from AR’s are a small portion of total deaths and the lawful owners of AR’s don’t see why they should be deprived of their rights due to the illegal actions of others.

You, who do not shoot AR’s (or at all as far as I know) do not see these rights as important, and therefore see it as no big deal to take them away, regardless if it infringes on any rights, which you reject anyway.

To give you an example of why the gun people disagree with you, consider something you do enjoy: Flying.

Most people who shoot AR’s view it like you view flying—something that they enjoy; the act of going to the range and shooting targets or “plinking” cans at home or whatever, is just an activity they like to do.  It then gives them the added benefit of being usable for home protection and the admittedly whacked out perspective that they will fight the oppressive government should it ever come to that.

Again, the last is probably ridiculous, but it is a psychic benefit important to many people; the home protection aspect is real and the enjoyment of shooting is real.

You would probably say that all may be true, but is not worth the deaths.  The pro-gun response is that the deaths from AR’s are a small, small proportion of overall gun homicides, despite the high profile cases.

Again, lets compare it to flying, something you love.  Every year, roughly 400-450 people die in general aviation accidents.  For rifles total, not AR rifles alone, but total rifles, the latest year (2014) had 248 people murdered.  (suicides are unknown, I’d suspect they are a similar percentage with homicides, i.e. under 5%; accidental death are almost exclusively handguns).

To put this in context, there are somewhere around 5,000,000 AR style rifles in circulation, meaning in any given year, there is (at most) about 1 murder per 20,161 AR rifles in 2014.  By contrast, there are roughly 210,000 private planes, so that would equal 1 death per 525 planes.  So from a purely statistical standpoint, private planes are about 80 times more deadly than AR rifles.

I realize that these stats are not apples to apples and if you include suicides and accidental deaths the AR might be as deadly or more deadly than private planes (although on a per unit basis, I would say owning a plane is far likelier to kill someone than owning an AR).  But imagine if the government took these statistics and banned private planes and non-commercial aircraft.  What would your response be?

I’m sure you can come up with all kinds of reasons why flying is important and useful and banning planes would be a complete over-reaction, but I can also point out that the vast majority of people don’t fly private planes and do just fine (plus you destroy the environment and suck up gobs of government money with regional airports and below market landing fees).

What if [the Las Vegas murdered] instead of buying a bunch of AR’s instead rented a Beechcraft Barron 58 (or something much larger, I’m not a plane guy), filled it up that barrels of gasoline and flew into an NFL stadium or concert full of people, something it seems he had every capability of doing?  Could there have been as many deaths?  If there had been, and the government banned private aircraft and you could no longer fly, wouldn’t that piss you off?

You are now prevented from doing something you love (and you only do it because you love it, there is no economic case to be made for private planes) because some evil act committed by someone unknown to you.

Again, I’m sure you don’t see it this way because you see no use to AR rifles.  But I see no use to private planes;  I think there is no reason for people who are not commercial aircraft carriers to fly, not to mention the vast and ridiculous subsidies private planes receive.  One of the great things about America is you can do things other people don’t approve of; that you can do things like shooting guns or flying just because you enjoy it.

I realize planes are heavily regulated, I guess my point is that despite the heavy regulation there are still deaths and despite the low regulation of AR’s there are relatively few deaths compared to other weapons.  Again, God forbid the Vegas shooter flew his plane into an airliner (which is actually quite difficult to do, but you get my point.  None of those regulations can prevent that sort of act).

That is what frustrates many gun folks is the attention on AR’s when the vast majority of gun deaths come from cheap handguns in the hands of criminals (which is illegal anyway) but the focus is banning guns used by legal gunowners, who are responsible for a fraction of a fraction of the harm.  And as many people have mentioned, with 300 million guns in circulation, regulation is largely futile; the focus should be enforcing current laws IMO.

If it makes you feel any better, I’d imagine we’ll be heading for a ban in the next 40 years or so if for no other reason that the hard core gun people are such profound assholes (as I’m sure your e-mails will attest to) they will alienate everyone eventually, so give it time.  I like to shoot guns for enjoyment and use them for personal protection and the only AR I own is a 22LR which on a good day can kill a large rabbit, but seriously think the left focuses on symbols (scary looking guns) in the gun debate rather than facts.


I appreciate the reader laying it out in this detail. Here are two obvious differences in the plane-versus-AR-15 comparison, from my (no doubt biased) point of view:

Number 1: small airplanes kill a lot of people, but they very rarely hurt anyone who hasn’t chosen to get on board.

Several years ago near my then-home airport, the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a private jet crashed, in bad weather, into a nearby house and killed a mother and two children who were inside. (In addition to killing the pilot and two others aboard the plane.) It was so horrific an incident, and so universally understood as a grotesquely “unfair” extension of damage to people who had not knowingly accepted the risk, that the entire flying community recognized it might change the future of the airport and flying practices there. (This was so even though the airport had been up and running many years before the nearby subdivisions went in and people moved to the area.)

The episode was horrific—and rare. On average, there’s about one fatal crash a day, year round, involving small airplanes in the United States — a rate that has slowly but steadily decreased.  But in the course of an average year, very few of those episodes involve anyone on the ground. Some years it’s four or five people. Some years it’s none. By contrast: an average of around 90 people per day die of gunshot wounds, or a little under four per hour (not per year). Even after you remove gunshot suicides, which are around 60 percent of all U.S. gun deaths, there’s still an enormous difference between the damage done by guns to people who hadn’t knowingly accepted that risk, and the damage done by planes.

So: the undeniable dangers of small-plane aviation are almost completely limited to their own pilots and passengers. In this way aviation is like scuba diving, or motorcycle riding, or other statistically risky pursuits whose risks are concentrated on the practitioner. If the same were true of guns—that people using them were the only ones getting hurt or killed—the public debate would be quite different.

Number 2: If gun use and ownership were even 1 percent as tightly regulated as anything involving aviation, the landscape would also be entirely different.

Pilots are licensed, registered, subject to recurrent checks of everything from what prescription drugs they are taking to whether they have had any brushes with the law, apart from myriad regular checks of proficiency. (Sample: want to come with me for a night-time plane ride? Fine—but I need to have made three full takeoff-and-landing cycles at night time, in the previous 90 days, before I can legally take anyone with me in a plane at night. Do I want to use my instrument rating to make a flight when the weather is bad? Fine — but only if I have maintained legal “currency” by doing a certain number of instrument-conditions approaches and maneuvers in the previous six months. Do I want to fly at all? Let me tell you about the Biennial Flight Review, and the mandatory annual very detailed inspections of the plane itself.) Even a few of the federal regulations that apply to pilots would, if applied to gun ownership, be portrayed by today’s NRA as a catastrophic step toward totalitarian state control.

To answer the specific hypothetical: I couldn’t fly a gasoline- or bomb-laden plane over a crowd at a sports stadium, because there are no-fly zones over most such places now. Just as an illustration, from the FAA’s real-time map, here’s the (permanent) no-fly zone shown right over Disneyland. It’s the bright red circle with lines radiating inward from its border:

Yes, a determined and suicidal pilot could fly right through that and do damage. But everyone in the flying world knows that if that happened even one time, everything about flying “rights” and restrictions would change. Society would figure that it could not take that risk again. Here’s a real world illustration: after the 9/11 attacks, even though small airplanes had nothing to do with it, small airports around the country were shuttered for extended periods. Gaithersburg, where my propeller plane was at the time, was totally closed for about three months. No one could land or take off from there. The flight schools, maintenance shops, charter operations, and other businesses there were cut off cold, and of course many failed. Such is the public-risk/individual-privilege balance as it applies in aviation. Imagine the parallel with guns.

The balance between public risk and individual right/privilege is again coming into focus with guns. People who did not choose to expose themselves to gun risks, who were just going to a day at school, now lie dead, barely into their teens. That’s different from airplanes, it’s different from anything else. And it’s wrong.