January 25, 2013

The Efficacy of Banning Guns

The gun control controversy has raised its head once again, and though there has been more heat than usual, there has been a typical lack of serious reflection. Let’s consider the issues underneath the slogans.

Let’s imagine, for sake of argument, that the most extreme regulatory measures could be enacted into law – a full repeal of the 2nd Amendment and a Federal ban on the possession of any firearm by any private individual in America. In such a scenario, many law-abiding people would undoubtedly turn in their guns. Many other basically law-abiding people would not, and would thus become felons on principle. The percentage who would choose to disobey the law is impossible to estimate accurately, but unquestionably some firearms would be taken out of circulation and, presumably, would be destroyed.

The NRA has always put forward the argument that criminals would not turn in their guns. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption. If a person makes a living by illegal means, he is certainly not likely to meekly give up his pistol either because “it’s the right thing to do,” or because the possession of it is made a crime. Still, one might expect a certain gradual decline in gun crime, simply through attrition. Guns do get seized in arrests, they break, they get lost, ammunition gets consumed or goes bad through improper storage, etc. So, although gun crime would not stop immediately, it would have to dwindle away eventually – right?

For better or worse, I believe that answer, at least in America, is almost certainly “no.” Consider guns as a market commodity like any other. As long as there is a demand for a commodity that someone can profitably supply, that commodity will be supplied. For example, a great variety of narcotics and other drugs are illegal in the US, but decades of law enforcement efforts have failed to put an end to their use, or even come close to doing so. The same would be true of firearms. There is no reason to assume that a narcotrafficker with the means of smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the country in large quantities either could not or would not engage in gunrunning if such a market came into existence. Indeed, the customer base and distribution networks created for narcotics would serve narcotraffickers well for distributing illegal guns and ammunition. It is reasonable to assume that gunrunning would more than compensate for the attrition one would expect through breakage and confiscation. Criminals would not only ignore the law, but would have a fairly reliable source of illegal supply. Gun violence might decline slightly due to the inflation of prices resulting from a restricted market, but would probably still plateau at a high level. To the extent that criminals find guns desirable for their mystique alone, banning them would only make them more attractive by endowing them with more prestige.

The left believes that the Mexican drug cartels acquire their weapons at American gun shows. I doubt this happens often, but even if it does it is merely a supply of convenience. People with the resources to control whole regions of Mexico have the resources to import weapons from the international market. Likewise, evidence that gun crime has declined in England and Australia is inapplicable. Neither England nor Australia have the border issues that America does.

Another common argument against banning guns, the argument that an armed public is a deterrent to crime, is harder to prove. Armed citizens do successfully stop or prevent crimes occasionally, but the argument that this is statistically relevant is still the subject of some controversy. There is at least one credible study that shows that armed citizens reduce the rate of street crime (see John Lott, 2000). The argument has to work to some degree – being practically certain that a homeowner would not have a gun wouldn’t make a home invader less likely to break in. Statistics comparing the US with gun-free England do support this. You can play this argument off against the rate of gun accidents and other considerations, but, with regard to violent crime, being armed must give a person at least some advantage over being unarmed.

The final common argument against gun control – and against a ban on militarily useful firearms in particular – rests on the belief that the public itself should have the capacity to throw off tyranny, foreign or domestic, by force if necessary. This is an entirely different kind of argument – an argument for a specific kind of individual liberty, not an argument for more effective crime prevention. It is a romantic notion for some, and a terrifying one for others. A look at popular uprisings and insurgencies around the world, including those we have recently faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, shows that this is not a wholly unworkable idea. Still, professional military forces are formidable things, and only an extremely lucky private militia would survive a single battle against one. Whether one finds the idea of a violent revolution heroic or unspeakable, any honest look at history reveals all wars to be brutal, ugly, and indiscriminant. Revolutions are sometimes inevitable, but what follows them is usually worse than what preceded them. Ginning up a civil war is not something that should be taken lightly by anyone, but utterly stripping the people of the capacity to resist oppression should not be taken lightly either.

It is plain that the present furor over gun control has little to do with guns and even less to do with the unfortunate children who died in Sandy Hook. Neither side wants a repetition of that, but neither side has a viable solution. Politically, the Sandy Hook massacre is just the latest flash point in the conflict between liberal and conservative cultures. The liberal culture believes it is the role of government to protect us not only from imminent harm, but from the very possibility of harm – not only from each other, but from ourselves. Conservatives wish chiefly to be left alone, and chafe under the progressive erosion of individual freedoms. This division is at times quite explicit. During a speech announcing his state’s recent passage of particularly stringent gun laws, Governor Andrew Cuomo harangued his audience -- “This is New York, the Progressive Capitol! – You show them how we lead!” Statements like this have nothing to do with the merits of a particular public policy. Public policies do not have Capitols – separate peoples do.

It must be said, too, that one particular argument for gun control is particularly alarming. That argument was stated very succinctly by Nancy Pelosi years ago, and has continued to reverberate through the confrontation ever since. “No one needs a gun.” In one sense, this is a simple fact. No one, even a soldier or a police officer, will immediately drop dead without a gun. The problem with this argument, however, is that it sets the threshold for government intervention not at the limits set by the US Constitution, nor even by a standard of public safety, but at the bare threshold of need. It is equally true, for example, that no one needs a motorcycle. They are noisy, they are prone to accidents in which innocent people are sometimes killed, and they have social associations with lawlessness and antisocial behavior. Would we not be better, as a society, if we got rid of them? If we go very far with a standard of bare need, we can start throwing books into the fire as well. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in Rye has topped the reading list of an alarming number of killers – why not ban it as a precaution? No one needs to read it.

To return to my original scenario, it does seem likely that a total ban on firearms would reduce the frequency of mass killings like Sandy Hook in the short run. Typically, the people who shoot up schools and theaters are disturbed, isolated, middle class young men. They are not hardened criminals who would have access to guns smuggled over the border. They get them from gun stores or family members. Mass shootings per se could be expected to decline.

In the long run, I suspect that even this benefit would be fleeting. The killer who shot up the theater in Colorado last year also built a substantial collection of bombs, but didn’t use them. The Oklahoma City bomber did spectacular damage with a bomb, and the largest criminal massacre of American school children in history was the product of a bomb. It isn’t reasonable to think that whatever motivates mass murders would disappear with the elimination of firearms. Firearms are merely one means to an end. Bombs, too, are effectively immune to any sort of ban. The formulas for bomb making are widely disseminated. The component materials are so common and varied that they cannot be effectively regulated or monitored. Further, I have little doubt that in the wake of another serious bombing some enterprising filmmaker would make bombing “cool,” and some equally enterprising software company would make a video game on that theme. Grandpa’s favorite shotgun would be chopped up, but unless that is an end in itself very little would be accomplished.

Lesser measures, like limiting magazine capacity or banning guns that look especially scary to certain people, will, of course, be even less effective in reducing both types of crime than a total ban on firearms would. But then – stopping crime is really not the point. Welcome to the culture war.

No comments:

Post a Comment