DarwinCatholic

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Understanding “Assault Weapons”

This post is a somewhat condensed version of a three post series that I posted on my personal blog last week.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to hear a lot about “assault weapons”. This term is one that makes those who are informed about guns climb the walls a bit. “Assault weapon” is a legal term which was created by a series of gun control laws in the late ’80s and early ’90s culminating in the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Ban. However, the term was coined to sound like the military technology term “assault rifle” (many even use the terms interchangeably.) Assault rifles were a development in military technology coming out of World War II, and it’s there that I’d like to start this story.

Battle Rifle to Assault Rifle

During World War II the need for a lighter gun suitable for rapid fire became increasingly obvious. The roughly .30 caliber battle rifles that were standard issue for all WW2 armies fired very powerful cartridges and were accurate out to distances over 600 yards.  However, although the rifles were technically accurate at such long distances, few soldiers had the skill to am the well at long range, and the vast majority of battlefield shooting was conducted at distances of 300 yards or less.  Moreover, in WW2′s highly mobile tactics, the ability of infantry soldiers to lay down effective suppressing fire had become important.  For most of the war this was achieved through specialization.  Most infantry soldiers carried full size battle rifles like the American semi-automatic M1 Garand and the German bolt action K98, while a smaller number of soldiers were issued sub machine guns — lighter weapons which could shoot in fully automatic (firing continuously as long as the trigger was held down) or burst mode (firing bursts of 3-5 shots every time the trigger was pulled.)  To make then easy to handle (and allow them to carry more rounds) sub machine guns shot smaller, pistol cartridges rather than a full size rifle cartridge and were thus suitable only for short range.

Tom Hanks holding a Thompson
Sub Machine Gun (chambered for the
.45 APC pistol cartridge) in
Saving Private Ryan

Military technologists were convinced that a cross between a full sized battle rifle and a sub machine gun was needed. Such a gun would shoot a rifle cartridge, but a lighter one which would not have as much recoil as a high power .30 caliber round. It should also be capable of shooting in burst or fully automatic mode as well as semi-automatic mode (one shot for each pull of the trigger.)

Germany produced the first true “assault rifle” near the end of World War II, the Sturmgewehr 44. It shot a shortened .30 caliber bullet with a lighter charge of powder behind it, making the recoil lighter and the ammunition cheaper to produce and lighter to carry, and it could shoot either in semi-auto or full-auto mode. By late 1943, however, the tide was already turning against Germany and its manufacturing capacity was waning. Only half a million were ever produced (compared to over 14 million of their full size K98 Mauser bolt action battle rifle.) However, it provided the inspiration for Mikhail Kalashnikov’s development of the AK-47 in Russia after the war. The AK-47 also used a light .30 caliber cartridge and selective fire (the ability to fire either semi-auto or full-auto.) The design became the standard Russian infantry rifle in 1949 and went on to become perhaps the most widely produced rifle design in history. Continue reading

The Election in Two Images

I’ve been mostly offline the last couple days due to a business trip — leaving early the morning after the election. I may write a bit about the election itself in a few days, but since I’ve spent the last couple days deeply immersed in ways of visualizing data, these two versions of the election map struck me as really interesting in showing what went on Tuesday.

This first image shows the size of the winning candidate’s margin for each county. (click for a larger view) [source]

This second image shows the direction of change in the vote of each county as compared to 2008.

UPDATE: Okay, one more image because with all the discussion of re-alignment and emerging majorities I couldn’t help putting one together:

The Clever Economics Behind Romney’s Tax Plan

One of the things which the candidates sparred over repeatedly in the debates was Romney’s tax plan, on which Obama has repeatedly charged “the math doesn’t work”.

Romney’s plan, as it has been presented, is to reduce tax rates by 20%. Thus, for example, the top rate would go down from the current 35% to 28%. Deductions and credits would then be reduced such that while the middle class would experience a net tax decrease, those at the top would continue to pay the same amount in taxes as they do now. Romney suggested how this might be done in the first debate:

[W]hat are the various ways we could bring down deductions, for instance? One way, for instance, would be to have a single number. Make up a number, $25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people. That’s one way one could do it.

The idea here would be that for a family making, say 60k/yr that currently takes a total of $15k in deductions, the deductions would remain untouched while their rate would go down, resulting in lower net taxes. For a family making $400k/yr that currently takes $70k in deductions, their deductions would be capped at $25k but their tax rate would be lower, so they would pay about the same as they do now.
Continue reading

Some Quick Post Debate Thoughts

President Obama’s performance in the first debate was, unarguably, pretty lethargic, and he took a big hit in the polls shortly afterward. The general wisdom drawn from this, especially on the democratic side of the aisle, seemed to be that what was really needed in the debates was, thus, more aggression. Biden delivered this in his own unique way in the Veep debate, to such an extent that one wondered at times whether he would have to be removed from the stage in a straight jacket, still alternating between wild cackling and angry shouting, but at last he ran out of gas and calmed down in the last 20 minutes. Obama has a sense of personal dignity that Biden lacks, and so although he certainly came to the debate in a pugilistic frame of mind, he didn’t make himself silly in the way that Biden did. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the debate was supposed to feature the candidates answering questions directly from voters, it instead was most notable for intense bouts of the candidates rhetorically hammering each other.

The common wisdom is that this kind of thing turns undecided voters off. I saw some anecdotal evidence of this in the reactions of my less partisan friends on Facebook, one of whom posted in indignation:

Dear Gov Romney and Pres Obama,
Every time you keep talking when you are reminded that a normal citizen has a question for you, you reinforce that you think what you have to say is more important than the concerns of the people of your country. You both lost my vote tonight.

This aside, though, I think the focus on rhetorical dominance and aggression has probably been misplaced. Was it really that Obama’s performance in the first debate was so sluggish that cost him so much in the polls? I don’t think most Americans care whether the president is a skilled debater or not. Continue reading

Veep Reax

Alright, I’m in full political crack monkey mode from here on till the election, so I’ll be the one to throw up the instant reactions thread.

My take: This was not the total blowout that the first presidential debate was. Ryan was calm and professional the entire time. Biden brought his Cerberus-style split personality, one head Cheshire Cat, the other head rabid attack dog. He called Ryan a liar in the very first exchange and kept it up all night, at one point even accusing the moderator of lying. Then, during the last fifteen minutes Biden meds ran out and he fell back on the gravely “I’m so concerned” voice for the rest of the debate.

Overall, I’d rate it a draw. I think partisan Democrats are mostly elated, since all they’ve wanted for the last week is to see someone interrupt a Republican and call him a liar, and Biden did indeed do that constantly. Republicans had nothing to cringe about in Ryan’s performance. Ryan remained cool and collected throughout and scored the one audience reaction line of the night in defusing Biden’s attempt to demagogue the 47% quote.

What Independents will have thought I honestly can’t say, though I see a CNN poll of undecided voters called it for Ryan by a 48 to 44 margin. My guess is, this does nothing to help Obama claw back from his collapse with the ordinary voting public, but it does help the Dem campaign by soothing the utter panic which has gripped much of the left over the last week. I’d guess we’ll see basically consistent poll numbers (between a tie and Romney up one) for the next week until the next Presidential debate. Then we’ll see. The big problem for Obama is that the next debate is strictly foreign policy and the one after that is a town hall meeting, so he never gets to imitate Biden’s mad dog routine on domestic policy.

Now Who Is Second Guessing the Polls?

Last week, before the debate, I noted that Democrats were mocking Republicans for trying to explain away Romney’s poor performance in recent polling (while themselves showing a certain lack of reality in their assessment of the economy.) The debate came and Romney routed Obama on the debate stage in a way that exceeded my wildest hopes. Now we see an unprecedented post-debate surge for Romney in the polls, with Gallup and Rasmussen both showing Romney in a tie with Obama and a post-debate Pew poll showing Romney beating Obama by 4% among likely voters, a twelve point swing from Pew polling a month before in which Romney trailed Obama by 8%.

And just to show that the desire to fight the data is bi-partisan, now Democrats are trying to explain away the polls, with Jonathan Chait arguing:

Polls have very low response rates. Sometimes short-term events that dominate the news cycle excite partisans and make them more likely to answer pollsters — it happened when Romney picked Paul Ryan — but they don’t reflect a deep remaking of the public opinion landscape, which remains fairly settled.

Of course, that’s true. Polling is a very uncertain science, and there are lots of unknowns like partisan differences in response rates. Of course, that’s equally true whether your candidate is ahead or behind, but it’s something that people usually only emphasize in the latter case.

Romney certainly doesn’t have the race in the bag. There’s a month to go, and the Democrats will be going for Romney’s metaphorical jugular with everything they’ve got. But there’s enough polling floating around right now to suggest that the candidates are now even or else Romney is ahead. (As I go to hit “post”, I see a PPP poll sponsored by DailyKos and the SEIU is out showing Romney up 2% over Obama among likely voters.) It may not last, but I’m hoping it does and enjoying it while I can.

The Reality Gap

We’ve reached the point in the election where the press decides to mostly report on how the election is being perceived rather than on any particular events, and since the president is doing well in the polls this results in a lot of “desperate Republicans do foolish things” stories. The flavor of the week seems to be the media’s discovery that somewhere out there in the right-leaning internet, there are people who have made a hobby of “re-weighting” polls in order to reflect what the re-weighters think is a more likely partisan composition of the electorate come election day.

There is, yes, a certain sad desperation about this. Now that election reporting is often more about “the race” than about issues or events, being behind in the race is crippling and so people come up with way to try to explain it away. Those with long memories (eight years counts as long in our modern age) may recall that when Bush was so rude as to be ahead of Kerry in the 2004 race, Michael Moore and those like-minded rolled out a theory that all the polls were wrong because an army of voters who only used cell phones and not land lines (and thus couldn’t be polled) were out there ready to vote against Bush.

However, just as everyone’s getting ready to announce that Republicans, in their constant flight from the “reality based community” have decided they don’t believe in polling, we find out that the left has its own reality problem: They’re convinced that the economy has been getting better over the last couple months, despite the fact there’s little reason to believe this. Gallup and the Pew Research Center both have data out showing that Democrats’ opinions of the economy and the job market have suddenly started improving, despite almost universally bad news over the last several months.

As you can see, partisan affiliation wasn’t much of a dividing factor in assessments of the economy a year ago, but now that a bad economy might mean President Obama not being re-elected, Democrats obediently come to the conclusion that the economy really isn’t that bad. According to Pew, the same divide now exists on the job market, consumer prices, the financial market, real estate, and even gas prices. You would think that at least people could agree on what the level of gas prices is, but no, apparently not, though the gap is narrower there than elsewhere: 89% of Republicans say they hear mostly bad news about gas prices while 65% of Democrats do.

The trope goes that you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. However, as the political divide has become wider and more entrenched opposite sides increasingly do have their own facts, as reality become filtered through a partisan lens.

Will Money Make Everyone Virtuous?

One of the many divides among modern Catholics is between what we might call the “moralizers” and the “justice seekers”. “Moralizers” are those who emphasize the importance of teaching people moral laws and urging them to abide by them. “Justice seekers” seek to mitigate various social evils (poverty, lack of access to health care, joblessness, etc.) and believe that if only these social evils are reduced, this will encourage people to behave better.

Moralizers tend to criticize the justice seekers by pointing out that following moral laws is apt to alleviate a lot of the social evils that worry the justice seekers, arguing, for example, that if one finishes high school, holds a job and gets married before having children, one is far less likely to be poor than if one violates these norms.

Justice seekers reply that the moralizers are not taking into account all the pressures there work upon the poor and disadvantaged, and argue that it’s much more effective to better people’s condition than to moralize at them (or try to pass laws to restrict their actions) because if only social forces weren’t forcing people to make bad choices, they of course wouldn’t do so.

(I’m more of a moralizer myself, but I think that we moralizers still need to take the justice seeker critique into account in understanding where people are coming from and what they’re capable of.)

One area in which the justice seeker approach seems to come into particular prominence is the discussion of abortion. We often hear politically progressive Catholics argue that the best way to reduce abortions is not to attempt to ban or restrict them, but rather to reduce poverty and make sure that everyone has access to health care. There’s an oft quoted sound bite from Cardinal Basil Hume (Archbishop of Westminster) to this effect:

“If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it’s needed, she’s more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn’t it obvious?”

You’d think that it was obvious, but I’m suspicious of the idea that having more money or resources makes us better or less selfish people (an idea which strikes me as smacking of a certain spiritual Rousseauian quality that doesn’t take fallen human nature into account) so I thought it would be interesting to see if there’s any data on this.

I was not able to find data on the relationship of abortion to health insurance, but I was able to find data on the relation of abortion to poverty, and it turns out that the Cardinal, and conventional wisdom, are wrong.
Continue reading

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