Saturday, April 21, 2007
Rethinking Gun Control
On the other hand, laws restricting firearms have nearly 100% compliance rates, a remarkable achievement.
For example, at Virginia Tech, it appears that 99.9975% of the students complied with the prohibition on possessing a firearm on campus. The law worked remarkably well, and did exactly what it is supposed to do. When the one student in 40,000 violated the law and began murdering his fellow students, no one took the law into their own hands. "Fighting criminals, that’s a job for the police, not the citizen." This an example of gun control working: it did exactly what it is supposed to do – it rendered the law-abiding citizens helpless.
The consequences might not be what some would hope, but that's a different matter. Everyone knows that no law will be obeyed 100% of the time, and it’s rather obvious that in the case of gun restrictions the people who obey the laws, the people who can be trusted with guns, will be rendered helpless. People who can’t be trusted will violate them and will be much freer to commit whatever mayhem they choose.
A ban on private ownership of firearms would no more eliminate firearms or violence than bans on drugs have eliminated drugs. But a gun ban would certainly increase the relative firepower of criminals vs. honest citizens.
Do you think this doesn’t really matter? Consider, for a moment, the places with most heavily armed people in this country – private and public shooting ranges. I’ve spent considerable time on such, and the weaponry is amazing – rifles with high capacity mags, handguns of every sort, shotguns, and most shooters seem to have multiple weapons handy at any one time. When was the last time you heard of a massacre occurring at a shooting range? The answer is: you haven’t heard of one. It doesn’t happen. Even psychopaths aren’t so crazy as to try that. And were one to try, he wouldn't need to commit suicide – he wouldn’t have enough time left to even contemplate it.
Psychopaths who want to commit mayhem don’t go to shooting ranges, they go to places where everyone is unarmed. Armed robbers don't go there either, they go to places where everyone is unarmed. Disarming the law-abiding citizen simply increases the opportunities – the set of prey – for the psychopath and the criminal. It also helps foster the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that politicians need to thrive, which explains why politicians of both parties are interested in gun control.
Outlawing firearms cannot possibly eliminate violence or crime. The arguments are so obvious that I suspect most advocates are disingenuous when they argue otherwise. Everyone knows that 99.9975% is a remarkably high rate of compliance for a law. The effects of such rates of compliance are clearly horrific, catastrophic. Gun control advocates are prepared to accept such effects as a side consequence of rendering us helpless. A far better approach to crime control would be to provide firearms, along with training in how and when to use them, to as many citizens as possible, something like the Swiss/Israeli approach. The closer America, or any other country, approached a shooting range environment, the better.
Oh, it’s a dream, I know, to think today’s politicians would see it this way. We’re not supposed to be responsible. We’re not supposed to have any real power or independence. We’re supposed to be contented consumers, workers, taxpayers, voters – completely powerless, a herd of domestic animals to be managed. If a few of the herd are lost because of the docility forced on them, well, that’s just a cost our managers will have to bear.
Happily, all of us are not yet entirely domesticated. Now is a good time to buy more guns, stock up on ammunition, and – most importantly of all – reaffirm you are an independent being, free by right, and no one’s domestic animal.
A good place to begin this last is by reading (or rereading) Jeffrey Snyder's classic essay "A Nation of Cowards."
We Brits often misunderstand the American defence of the right/need for gun-ownership. As I understand it, the constitutional right is predicated on the need, in extremis, to be able to resist (internal or external) despotic forces. Given the trend for governments to arrogate ever more powers, I have a certain amount of sympathy with that, although the size of the professional army and modern military technology has ensured that, should such resistance be needed, it would likely be futile. Nevertheless, given the history that led to the 2nd Amendment, I am not surprised that Americans don't take too well to Brits telling them they ought to be disarmed by the government. Please don't interpret me as making that mistake.
We Brits tend to connect the level of violence in the US with the wide availability of guns. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I accept the "guns don't kill people" refutation of this argument. What, then, does explain the exceptionally high (for a first-world country) homicide rate in the USA? I posed this question a couple of months ago over at Samizdata.net, along with some reasons why the usual answers don't wash, and a suggestion for an alternative explanation. All I got were the usual stock answers, without an explanation of how they dealt with my reservations about those answers - it was clear that they were Pavlovian responses rather than considered answers. Seems like an interesting problem for a social scientist to take a more critical look at, so what do you put it down to?
And what do you think about the following as a tentative suggestion? We don't like the government infringing on people's rights to bear arms and defend themselves. On the other hand, I guess most people would agree that it would be preferable to keep guns out of the hands of people like Cho. By the sounds of it, no one who met him would have supported an application by him to buy a weapon. So why not make it a requirement for the purchase of a weapon to be supported by two sponsors? The sponsors would have to be above a certain age (30?), and have no serious criminal convictions. They would be liable (under a civil action? / as an accessory in a criminal case?) if the person they sponsored committed a serious crime with the weapon. That way, it wouldn't be the government's choice who owned what weapons, but the choice of your family and friends. Seems more like where the responsibility ought to lie, and better than there being almost no responsibility at all.
First, Americans really are more violent than most people. Americans tend not to realize it, but if one compares Americans and Canadians, for example, one finds great differences in mentality. Americans are more prone to stand up for what they believe their individual rights and honor, and more ready to fight about it.
The thing about gun control is that it does not work, if the goal is to reduce crime.
It was already not legal for Cho to purchase a handgun, but that doesn't answer your general question. Your sponsorship idea strikes me as dreadful. I know all sorts of good people about whom I'd trust with a firearm. But if they snapped, or something happened to change them, why should I be punished? Would you be willing to apply this standard to the acquisition of driver's licenses, and if a friend you vouched for drives negligently, you are punished?
Far more sensible, I think, would be a sort of "arm everyone" approach. Anyone who wished could go to the government and obtain: (1) thorough training in firearm use, and (2) a firearm. Anyone who applied and proved to be of doubtful character or sanity should be screened out. Training would include careful study of the moral and legal use of deadly force, firearm safety, and shooting skills. I've been through such training, and I think it not only made me a better shooter, but a better & safer driver, and a better neighbor.
I'll take a look at your Samizdata debate and comment at some point.
And I haven't forgotten I owe you a note on Coase. When I get it to you (soon), I think you'll enjoy it.
Maybe you're right that Americans are naturally more violent, but that begs the question. Why are Americans more violent? And why did their tendencies to violence start to diverge from the rest of the first-world in around 1905? And why did that tendency to violence go into retreat between 1993 and 2000, before picking up again thereafter?
I understand the argument that it is none of the Government's business how you defend yourself, but if you are going to have checks/controls, I don't understand why it is best to give the Government those powers and responsibility.
As I understand it, Cho bought his weapons legally, it was only his carrying of them on campus that was illegal. This suggests to me that the current system, which relies on government checks, is not good at spotting nutters. And given the usual Hayekian arguments about governments and information, that ought not to be a surprise. I would have thought the options would have been (a) no checks (and rely on armed citizens defending themselves), or (b) checks that involved people who actually knew the purchaser.
I agree, the degree of liability applied to sponsors in (b) is critical to whether it is feasible, but I would imagine one could limit liability to where it could be proved the sponsorship was negligent, i.e. the sponsor either did not know the purchaser, or had good reason to believe they were mentally unstable. This suggests one would go for the first of my options - civil action, rather than making the sponsors potential accessories in a criminal action, which on reflection, I agree is too draconian. The model would rely on some degree of liability, or everyone would be able to find willing sponsors regardless of their suitability, but it is not inconceivable to me that there is a happy medium.
What this really amounts to is family and community responsibility, so much better than government responsibility. For the majority of decent, law-abiding citizens, this will require no more than parents or other family vouching for their loved ones. If the system makes it easy for those from a stable background to obtain weapons to defend themselves, and difficult both for the government to prevent them, and for those from an unstable/criminal background to obtain them legally, that sounds like a better balance, if you are going to have checks at all, than simply relying on the government to choose who is suitable.
But I may have this completely wrong. For me, I'm bloody glad we don't have wide gun ownership in the UK. I'm just trying not to do the usual British thing of looking down our noses at the American attitude to guns, and to consider how one might, in a country where gun-ownership was an established right, minimise both government intervention in that right and the risk that unstable people would obtain weapons. Maybe there's a better way, but I don't see how leaving it to the government is that better way.
>Why are Americans more violent?
My answer: in 1776 the more individualistic Americans kicked out the less individualistic ones (who went to Canada); and this along with a culture that emphasizes individual rights and "give me liberty or give me death," has tended to make Americans more violence prone.
A good friend from Canada emphasized to me that the difference in mentality of Americans and Canadians is enormous, and traces to this.
I think this is further emphasized by American entertainment, which emphasizes violence. I imagine there are other cultural factors as well.
I don't know about the 1905 divergence to which you're referring, and can't comment.
The decline in American violence in the 1990s isn't understood, but seems unrelated to why Americans are more violent than others. The three arguments I've heard that make some sense are Shall Issue concealed carry laws, abortion, and changes in policing strategies. None of these seem to explain the subsequent reversal.
I've been thinking about your idea (esp. with civil rather than criminal liability). I still can't see the liability part of it. Consider this:
Most people who marry presumably suppose they know their partners very well, yet 50% of American marriages end in divorce, usually with one or both parties saying the other engaged in behavior they'd never have expected. The liability rule seems to me to ask for foresight beyond our abilities, and to place responsibility upon people who have no control over subsequent actions. One might reasonably and in good faith sponsor another, and once one has done that -- one holds liability for life? It hardly seems fair, and doesn't seem like a proper incentive structure either.
I actually like very much the spirit of your idea, I just think it wouldn't work and would likely create additional problems for gunowners.
As for my approach: I'm sort of gun nut myself and greatly enjoy shooting, but it bothers me that too many people seem insufficiently responsible with firearms. I've been a member of shooting clubs, and the degree of attention and serious devoted to safety is very impressive. There's a great deal of understanding that firearms can be deadly weapons, and near-fanatical devotion to using them safely and well. I'd like to see this sort of approach spread -- a mentality of "this is real, not a movie," personal responsibility, and competence & training.
I'd prefer to see costs of this sort of training lowered and costs of irresponsibility raised, part of what I was thinking of in the proposal I posted.
I am continuing to think about your proposal; while the liability part still bothers me, some version of it might make sense joined with my (admittedly rough) proposal.
Thanks for your comment.
I also understand also that similar results hold for crimes committed with knives, and that a much higher percentage of burglaries in Britain are "hot" (committed while the owners are at home, with greater physical danger to them). If so, in what sense are the Britain's laws working?
With regard to your first reply, all I can say is, oh well. Maybe my suggestion wouldn't work, like you say. And maybe the problem is intractable. It was just a suggestion. But as for causes, it seems like the statistics would repay further investigation. There is a big gap between 1776 and 1905, before which the homicide rate in America was similar to that in the rest of the first-world. I'm not sure I buy the eugenic explanation.
I've played rugby with and against Americans, which is a pretty good test of violent tendencies, and I didn't find them to be significantly more aggressive than us Europeans. Strong and determined, yes. But if anything, more inclined to play fair than we were. (If you want a nation who collectively never seem to take a step back, try the Scots.) Perhaps Americans' failure to "get their retaliation in first" on the rugby-pitch is simply lack of experience. But I've stood in queues in America and Europe, and it seems to me that North Americans and North Europeans are generally more inclined than our Latin neighbours to be polite and play by the rules. And if you really want to test which nationality has more violent tendencies, why don't you come over to the UK and go to a football match followed by a night on the town, and I'll come over to the States and do the same. I'll bet that your chances of getting punched for no apparent reason are much greater over here. But at least it will be a fist, not a bullet.
With regard to the questions in your latter reply, as I understand it, the levels of gun crime and homicide in the UK have been creeping upwards since the 1970s, but I am not aware that there has been a statistically-significant change in the rate of increase since handguns were banned in 1997. Very few people kept handguns at home before the ban - they were already used almost exclusively for sport rather than self-defence. And even if you had a handgun in the house when someone broke in, our laws are so biased in favour of the criminal that you are at significant risk of being prosecuted for assault if you defend yourself, while the assailant stands to make money out of it by suing the homeowner and/or selling his story. The removal of an almost non-existent means of self-defence made very little difference.
A disturbingly large proportion of our violent deaths (both shootings and stabbings) are "black on black" killings in our inner cities. I believe the police would attribute a significant part of the blame for increased numbers of shootings and stabbings to drug gangs (either rivalry or debt-enforcement), which are dominated by certain immigrant groups - particularly the "Yardies" from Jamaica. These gangs find a fertile recruiting ground amongst the underclass that successive governments' misguided welfare, education and law & order policies have helped to foster, and a ready home in the "slum estates" (something equivalent to your ghettos) in which they tend to live. In a world with no prospects, few positive male role-models and little discipline/law-enforcement, the "might is right" arrogance and apparent affluence of drug-dealers and other criminals attract the following of many hopeless young men either from certain ethnic-minority backgrounds (particularly Afro-Caribbeans and Asian/African Moslems) or a particular type of working-class white (I prefer "indolent class" as a term for these people to distinguish from the large number of respectable, hard-working working-class people). If you are interested in these social causes, there is an admirable guy called Shaun Bailey, who is a youth worker from this background trying to steer kids away from criminality, and Tory candidate for Hammersmith, who writes on this subject with the benefit of a lot of personal experience and insight.
So I would attribute a large part of the blame for the slow growth of violent death in the UK to the gradual collapse of personal responsibility amongst certain social groups, a collapse that has been sponsored by misguided socialist policies on welfare, education, law & order, and so on. Another factor, though this would apply more to stabbings than shootings, has been the change in our approach to the mentally ill. We have gradually moved from locking up our mentally ill to "treating" them in the community. For the majority, this probably represents a more humane approach, but for a minority, there are serious consequences with which the system is incapable of coping for fear of infringing on their "rights". Consequently, we have had a handful of attacks by schizophrenics and the like, who would not previously have been free to commit the offence. It is not a huge number, but it contributes to the increase in a relatively small number of total killings. It has also had a negative impact on a substantially larger number of mentally ill people who may be more a danger to themselves than others, and who need compulsory treatment for their own sake.
I believe the reason for the increase in "hot" burglaries is that (a) some items that burglars want to steal, such as cars, mobile phones and ipods are more likely to be available if the occupier is in, (b) more people have alarm systems nowadays,and they are less likely to be set if someone is home, and (c) if you want to break into a safe, it is easiest if you threaten someone's life. In other words, we have more to steal, more of what is worth stealing is portable, and in an increasingly rich but insecure world, we are taking more measures to protect our possessions, measures that can be best circumvented through threats/acts of violence. There is also less fear of arrest, as our police move from being crime-preventers to notaries recording crime once danger has passed. I'm not sure that this trend is as strong as it is in South Africa (which may be what you were thinking of), where it is increasing significantly and adding to the already-high levels of violence, exacerbated by envy and class/racial hatred.
Having said all that, we may be getting worse, but so are you, and your homicide rate (per unit of population) is still three times higher than ours. We can all learn things from each other, and the zero-tolerance approach to policing seems like a particularly important lesson we could learn from the States, but I'm not sure the gun culture would be such a good import.
Thinking about your objections to liability for sponsors, it seems to me that it is not necessary to make them responsible for future behaviour, but simply for reasonable assessment of suitability at the time the weapons are purchased. To prove liability, a claimant would have to show that the purchaser was either not well known to you at the time of the purchase, or was showing obvious signs of mental instability at the time of purchase, of which someone who was reasonably close to them would have been aware.
You will not pick up those who purchase weapons when of sound mind and then become psychotic, but you will pick up some of those who, having become psychotic, want to purchase weapons. Better than relying on strangers from the government?
For example, a close relative of mine is a paranoid schizophrenic. Until she was first sectioned, which was long after we were first aware of her problem, a government official would not have known that she had a problem. It is in the nature of those with this affliction that they are very good at pretending and lying. Even after she had been sectioned, we know that there are often such discontinuities in government databases that there could have been no certainty that this would have been picked up by a bureaucrat if she had applied to buy a gun. But no one who knew her, once her symptoms appeared, would have supported her application to buy a gun. Indeed, a car can be just as dangerous a weapon, and when she suffered her most recent recurrence, we pressured the police to take her off the roads before she did herself or someone else some harm, and they would not or could not do so until she committed an actual offence. That is why I am very much more inclined to rely on families and friends to judge someone's mental state and responsibility, than I am to rely on officers of the state.