Open Letter to MIT Professor Christopher Knittel: 5 Ways You Don't Get It On Gun Control


MIT professor Christopher Knittel recently penned an opinion piece in The Huffington Post titled "Time for Real Gun Control, Not Just Window Dressing." Knittel is a self-described life-long hunter and applied economics professor in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research focuses on the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of policy. 

Knittel says "Let's not kid ourselves: An assault weapon ban (AWB) is purely window dressing. An assault weapon is merely a semi-automatic rifle that carries its bullets in a magazine and looks vicious." Gun rights advocates would like that ... until they realize he means AWB doesn't go far enough. Knittel proves the truth of Will Rogers proverb — take someone out of their arena, and they're just plain dumb. In five major ways, Knittel proves he doesn't get it on gun control.

1. Knittel: Ban all semi-automatic weapons that accept magazines:

Knittel: "Meaningful gun control starts with banning semi-automatic weapons that carry their ammunition in magazines."


The major problem with this idea is that it's not constitutional. Really. The classic response is that "regulation is permitted" on some basis of degree. This is only part true.  The Supreme Court agrees restrictions on prohibition of arms by felons and mentally ill and against carrying in certain places like courthouses, jails, and schools. That doesn't mean any gun you believe is "too dangerous" is justifiably banned. The Court ruled in U.S. vs. Miller (1939) and D.C. vs. Heller (2008) that weapons in "common use at the time" are protected arms. Semi-automatics are in very common use in our time and have been since 1903. The Court has also said in Heller it is unconstitutional to ban an entire class of weapons popularly chosen by the American people (p.56-57); and there is no legal basis for limiting the right based on interest-balancing policy concerns. This means that the right can't be limited just because gun violence is a problem (p.62-63). The Court states, "we are aware of the problem of [gun] violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution...But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table" (p.64).

2. Knittel: Use gun buy-back programs to reduce existing guns:

Knittel doesn't propose making existing guns illegal. "Instead, I propose we adopt an aggressive buy-back program that is funded through a tax on gun and ammunition sales... For example, the first year of the program could pay $200 for such weapons. The next year could pay $300. And so on."


Gun buyback? Scholarly peer-reviewed research – like that from the British Journal of Criminology – concluded it didn't have any effect in Australia. Would it work here? While not attempted at a national level, local level attempts have yielded poor results. By what reason do we conclude it's likely to produce better results nation-wide? The National Research Council published a study in 2004 that analyzed any effectiveness of these programs and concluded, "the theory underlying gun buyback programs is badly flawed and the empirical evidence demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these programs."

Estimates in 2009 held there were 310 million guns. There have been millions purchased since. CNN reported in December 2012 alone there were more than 2.8 million NICS checks. True not every NICS check results in a sale, but many checks result in more than one firearm purchased. Who in their right mind would accept $200-300 for a rifle that costs $800-3,000?  It's a safe bet that millions of gun owners in the "take them from my cold, dead hands" crowd would never turn in a gun under any circumstances.

And how are we going to pay for buying back millions of guns? With a tax on guns and ammunition? This would also likely be subject to legal challenge if the tax were high enough it made purchase prohibitive and thereby made the right to self-defense impossible to exercise from a practical standpoint (The Court said, "a statute which, under the pretence of regulating, amounts to a destruction of the right, or which requires arms to be so borne as to render them wholly useless for the purpose of defense, would be clearly unconstitutional" (p.57). There's also the minor problem of $16 trillion in national debt, and possible sequestration of the Federal government's budget. Given that a buy-back would likely cost billions, the financial feasibility seems questionable.

3. Knittel: Hunting and Home defense would be preserved ... kind of:

Knittel: "But, what about the legitimate uses for guns? Such a ban would still allow hunters to use bolt-action rifles and pump-action shotguns for hunting mammals and birds. These are the same weapons I used in the past to hunt deer, pheasants, ducks, doves, and more. A pump-action shotgun or a single-action revolver is a also quite effective home-defense weapon."


First, this completely misses the point of the Second Amendment. While hunting is a lawful purpose of guns, it is not the main "core lawful purpose", which is "self-defense" (pp.56 & 58). Second, single-action revolver?  This is from a guy who grew up using guns?  I'm not buying it. For the uninformed, single-action revolvers hold a maximum of 6 shots, but more importantly, the hammer must be manually cocked each time you fire. Even if there is just one attacker, this is not ideal for self-defense in stressful situations. If there are multiple attackers, forget about it.

4. Knittel: Enjoyment vs. Safety trade-off:

Knittel: "Such a ban, while reducing the ability for people to kill other people, does not come without costs. Millions of law-abiding citizens get more enjoyment out of carrying and shooting semi-automatic weapons than they do from their close cousins. Many also get enjoyment from of carrying vicious looking "assault weapons." Again, this is the fundamental trade-off: lowering the enjoyment law-abiding citizens get from shooting semi-automatic weapons, while reducing the number of Newtown-like events."


Enjoyment of guns? Dude, what?! Okay, yes, it is fun to go to the range and pop off a few rounds, but Knittel clearly has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to the purpose of the Second Amendment (as noted above, self-defense). It has nothing to do with "enjoyment". There is no utilitarian calculus used to evaluate our inherent, pre-existing right to defense — and even if there were, the idea that banning semi-automatic rifles would yield positive results in such a calculus fails to consider at least three important things: First, according to widely respected criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston, handguns are the favorite weapon of choice among mass shooters — not rifles (the Virginia Tech shooter used handguns and mostly 10 round magazines); second, this assumes that such a ban would be effective in reducing homicides or preventing mass shootings — but no evidence exists to suggest this is the case; third, citizens use guns to defend themselves by even the most cynical peer-reviewed study 152,000 times per year (other peer-reviewed research suggests 256-373,000 is more accurate).

5. Knittel: The 'citizen-owned Nukes' straw man nonsense and other falsehoods:

Knittel: "The United States has a long history of regulating firearms. Normal citizens cannot bear nuclear arms; they can't bear rocket launchers, tanks, or a long list of other arms. There are also severe restrictions on owning fully automatic guns. These restrictions effectively make them illegal for most of us."


This argument both tetters on the ridiculously absurd as well as being factually incorrect.  Let's start with the absurd. No one credible (and maybe no one at all) is arguing for private ownership of tactical nukes. This is straw man fallacy at its worst; straw man means you set up a fictitious argument that your opponent isn't even making and then tear it down to make the opposition look weak. Now let's tackle the incorrect. According to the ATF, you actually can own a rocket launcher under the 1934 National Firearms Act. Where can you find one and at what cost? I don't know or care; the fact is, it's legal. If you can afford it, you just have to pay a $200 tax and fill out the paperwork. Machine guns are also legal according to the ATF. Critics cite cost of pre-1986 full auto machine guns, however according to the ATF, you can convert or "make" your own — just fill out the paperwork and pay $200.

So if you're reading Mr. Knittel, or someone sends you this article, two things: I would expect a better prepared argument from someone as highly educated and intelligent as I presume you must be to be teaching at MIT. Second, if you ever want to debate the topic, let me know and I'll be happy to oblige.