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In the effort to solve a social problem that arises in the course of building, maintaining, and improving a technologically advanced society we gain considerable help from looking at the engineering aspect of the problem. One such problem concerns the existence of firearms in the United States of America.
As of A.D. 2015 the death rate from guns in the United States is almost 5.5 times as high as that of Italy, the most violent nation in Europe with regard to guns. Horrible atrocities have been committed with guns and people are rightly upset. Our problem, then, asks us to find a way to protect the citizens and others in America from gun-caused injury and death.
The obvious solution would have all guns eliminated from the territory of the United States and there are people who have proposed doing just that. Many more people oppose that idea, pointing out that the fundamental law of the United States permits people to have guns with very few restrictions. A small subset of that group of people adhere to an intense anxiety that the federal government will confiscate all of the guns and then establish a brutalitarian dictatorship. The people in that subset have made virtually impossible any rational discussion of reducing gun violence in the United States, so the first step in solving the problem of gun violence must address and eliminate that anxiety.
To that end, letís assume that a malicious government does actually attempt to confiscate all of Americaís guns. As of January 2016 there are an estimated 320 million guns in the possession of private citizens in this country. What do the gun-grabbers have to do to take them all?
In the first phase of Operation Gun-Safe (a name chosen to deceive and mollify the gullible) the gun-grabbers must find all the guns. That should be a relatively straightforward and fairly easy task. After all, in 2010 the Census Bureau located and accounted for over 300 million American citizens. It shouldnít be too difficult to do the same thing with about the same number of guns, should it?
The census succeeds because people tend to be honest with the questionnaires and the census takers. That honesty is driven by the understanding that the government uses the results of the census to design the distribution of representation and government services. It is to our advantage that the government have a clear and accurate picture of settlement patterns in this country. That will not be true of guns.
As a rule Americans donít want others to know how many guns they have and where they are located: itís a simple and fairly obvious matter of security. Given the mistrust that exists between the people and the government (with good reason in too many cases), we can say with some confidence that the Census Bureau model wonít work when it comes to finding all of the guns. If they receive a questionnaire or if a gun finder comes to their door, people will simply lie. If a gun finder shows up, a gun owner may tell him about the .45 automatic that he keeps locked in a desk drawer and the hunting rifle that he keeps in the hall closet, but he will not mention the .38 revolver lying in a case mounted under the kitchen table, the Glock in a waterproof case in the toilet tank (in every bathroom in the house), the 12-gauge shotgun wrapped in a plastic bag and lying inside one of the ducts of the houseís air-conditioning system, the other hunting rifle in a box in the crawl space under the house (accessible through a trapdoor under the carpet in the master bedroom), or the AK-47 and ammunition in a waterproof box buried under the roses in the back yard.
Of course, the masterminds of Operation Gun-Safe know this. For the sake of discussion letís assume that they can get mass search warrants without lighting a very short fuse on a very big revolt (and what are the odds on that?). Their search program just became vastly more expensive than the census (which cost $13 billion for AD 2010, $42.11 per person for 308,745,538 people). Certainly they canít just send out questionnaires. They will have to interview every person in this country directly and search their homes and places of business as well as all vehicles. Theyíre going to have to send out teams equipped with metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar and conduct a house-by-house search.
Assume that a five-person team can search a residence (house and yard or apartment) in two hours on average. This country contains a number of residences on the order of 100 million, so the number of teams multiplied by the number of ten-hour days they work equals about 20 million. If phase one of Operation Gun-Safe is to take 20 days, then the project will need one million teams; thatís five million people doing nothing productive for the countryís economy. Thatís also five million people who have to be hired (drafted?), trained, equipped, and deployed. Thatís an effort comparable to what this country did in World War II.
How effective will the search be? Assume that Operation Gun-Safe has not been penetrated by spies who can reveal its plans (and how likely is that?). The search team has just come through my neighborhood. They have searched my house and yard and those of my neighbors and moved on. I have a friend who lives several miles away. He comes to my house and drives his car into my garage. We close the door and then take all of his guns and ammunition out of his car and stash them in my house. Once the search team has processed his neighborhood, he comes back to my house, retrieves his guns and ammunition, and takes them home. That is such an obvious ploy that the masterminds of Operation Gun-Safe will certainly take countermeasures.
Theyíre going to lock down America for a month. Roadblocks and checkpoints will be set up on every street and road in these United States and manned continuously (24 hours per day, seven days per week) to prevent the movement of guns and ammunition. Thatís millions more people who have to be hired, trained, equipped, and deployed. Thatís millions more people sucking the life out of the economy by doing nothing useful while using up tax dollars.
(And letís pause for a moment to contemplate the epidemic of water-balloon and super-soaker offensives that will be waged against those positions.)
When we look at the personnel participating in this project one feature will stand out. If I were one of the masterminds of Operation Gun-Safe, I would not want anybody searching their familiesí, friendsí, or neighborsí homes, vehicles, or businesses. Those people tend to make "mistakes". No, I want outsiders conducting the searches; Californians in Texas, Texans in Alaska, Alaskans in Montana, and so on. But as the searchers shifts end each day, those searchers canít just go home. Where will we put them?
We canít put them up in peopleís homes. The Third Amendment to the Constitution refers explicitly to soldiers, but a proper interpretation in light of the Foundersí intent would make it apply to any and all government employees, particularly our gun finders. Besides, this situation is going to be ticklish enough without adding this kind of provocation. Commandeering hotels and motels seems an obvious alternative, but doing that would further wound the economy, since those establishments are usually moderately full of people conducting business of one sort or another. Taking over the gymnasia of high schools and colleges might work, but in any case we end up with military-style encampments (in the gymnasia or in local parks, for example) with their field kitchens, latrines, infirmaries, etc. along with the logistics providers bringing in food, water, and other supplies and hauling out trash, garbage, and sewage. Thatís even more millions of people who have to be hired, trained, equipped, and deployed, creating an even more powerful suction pulling the economy into a financial black hole.
Operation Gun-Safe is going to be one massive project. Imagine trying to get the proposal for this money-sucking monster through Congress. But assume that the bill does pass and that the President signs it. The project will then succeed in finding all of Americaís guns, right?
How many people go camping with several guns and a stock of ammunition and return home without them? And for how long has this been going on? More explicitly, how many million weapons caches lie scattered across this continent? More importantly, how easy will they be to find?
We know that people grow marijuana in our national forests. Some of those clandestine farms can exist for several years before agents of law enforcement find them. How much longer will a stash of buried weapons go before being discovered? Consider some of the ploys that have likely been used.
A family camps by a river or a creek with a rocky bottom at a time of low water. When they are certain that no one is looking, possibly at night by moonlight, they dig a hole in the riverbed, put a waterproof container filled with guns and ammunition into it, and then fill the hole with gravel and rocks. The weapons cache is now invisible and only this family knows that itís there and where precisely it lies.
In the emptiness of the Mojave Desert several men in pickup trucks stop and dig a hole. They place boxes of guns and ammunition in the hole, then fill the hole, tamping the soil as best they can. Then they dig up a nearby creosote bush and transplant it onto the cache, putting the extra dirt into the hole from which they took the bush. If any strangers suspect the presence of a cache, that latter site is where they will dig and they will be disappointed. Eventually the wind and what little rain falls will erase all signs of human activity.
Old McDonald has a farm and a great big ammo dump. One hundred and sixty acres (one quarter section, one quarter of a square mile) of prime land can hide tons of ammunition and likely does. If the farm is square, it measures half a mile on a side. Itís isolated. Very few people drive by on the county roads and a very small percentage of those are strangers. So nobody notices when McDonald pauses in his plowing, digs a hole, lowers several cases of ammunition into it, then refills the hole and plows over it after using surveying instruments to ensure that he knows where the stash lies. And, of course, he has multiple stashes all over the farm.
Oh, but the eager beavers of Operation Gun-Safe believe that they can find all of those caches easily. Just bring out the metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar and sweep the country. Hereís a sobering thought for them.
In the December 2015 issue of Scientific American the editors appended an interesting comment to a short item reprinted from the December 1915 issue. The item described the use of the first crude metal detectors to find unexploded shells in World War I. The comment noted that even today, every year, authorities in Belgium and northern France recover hundreds of tons of spent ordnance from the two world wars, most of it from the first. That ordnance has been lying unfound for a century in a densely populated area slightly smaller than the State of Montana. Further, in the 2016 Feb 12 issue of THE WEEK newsmagazine "The Last Word" column pointed out that every year authorities in Germany dig up over 2000 tons of unexploded bombs and artillery shells; this almost three-quarters of a century after they dropped onto German soil. So now we believe that we can easily find weapons and ammunition that have been percolating steadily into an area 26 times as big? How many centuries will that take?
But even if all of the caches and stashes can be found quickly and easily, there is yet another factor that will come into play. Up to this point I have tacitly assumed that all guns and ammunition come from companies such as Colt, Ruger, Smith and Wesson, and so on. Those corporations are a convenience, not a necessity.
In the 1950's, when guns were not as readily available as they are today, teenagers in urban gangs armed themselves with what were called zip guns. Those were homemade weapons that were, more often than not, more dangerous to their users than to their intended targets. The simplest consisted of a tube that could hold a .22-caliber round, a wooden block, a couple of rubber bands, and a sliding bolt of the kind available in any hardware store. The zip gun tells us that a gun is a very simple machine. Any competent machinist can make guns, especially the AK-47, which was specifically designed to be simple, cheap, and robust. So even if Operation Gun-Safe could sweep the gun makers and their products from America quickly and easily, an army of amateur gunsmiths would rise up to replace them.
Oh, come now! Surely itís easy for the government to shut down a bunch of amateurs! We can tell how easy it will be, because we have trod this road before. They say that a word to the wise is sufficient: in this case the word is moonshine.
When Prohibition took effect in America in the 1920's an army of amateur distillers rose up to provide people with the alcohol they craved. In isolated areas all across this country people set up stills and produced the infamous White Lightning and its variants. The revenooers (federal agents) shut down every amateur distillery they could find, but they succeeded only poorly in stanching the flow of liquor in this country. Prohibition was an almost complete failure and was ended by a much-chagrined nation.
(Minor side note: Prohibition doesnít even work perfectly in Muslim countries and Islam, the religion itself, is absolutely teetotal.)
Stills are easy targets, because they have no alternative uses that can camouflage their use to produce liquor. Thatís not true of machine shops. Our mechanical civilization depends upon a vast number, thousands upon thousands, of machine shops of all sizes producing a wide array of metal goods. The clandestine production of parts for guns and of ammunition could be hidden quite easily. Only an Orwellian dictatorship with its all-intrusive telescreens could suppress such production.
It should be clear that phase one of Operation Gun-Safe simply cannot succeed. The very proposal provides more fodder for slapstick comedy (think of the Keystone Kops) than any incentive to give the project a real try. But assume that by some bizarre magic phase one succeeds. That would bring us to phase two, the actual Grabbing of the Guns. Phase two can, of course, be merged with phase one, the guns being grabbed as they are found, but in either case the result will be the same Ė a civil war that will destroy the country.
In the past few years a motto has become popular among gun enthusiasts ĖΜολωνΛαβε (pronounced moe-lone lah-beh). Itís Greek for "Having come, take!". At the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) the Persian king Xerxes demanded that the Spartans blocking his path give up their weapons and King Leonidas allegedly said, "Come and take them!" Itís a statement of defiance unto death and itís related to the more familiar statement involving cold, dead fingers. It tells us that any attempt to disarm the American people will be met with massive deadly force. Total gun confiscation is simply not viable as a means of ending gun-mediated violence in this country.
Moreover, guns are not the real problem. Their presence certainly exacerbates the problem, enabling criminals and lunatics to kill more people more effectively than they could without them. But the real problem lies in the American penchant for interpersonal violence, all too often on the flimsiest of grounds. That penchant comes to us from our culture, which we absorb as we grow up and pick up from the people around us. We will have to change that culture and its promotion of the Deadly Sin of Wrath in order to create a society fully at peace with itself. If we succeed in creating a society fully at peace with itself, then the guns wonít matter.
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