Let’s start with cards on the table. I don’t own a gun, I don’t shoot and I have no desire to own a gun. I am not a member of the NRA and I live in the United Kingdom which has a general anti-gun culture. However I am, obviously, a libertarian and libertarians generally are against gun control.
Ok, disclaimers out of the way let’s have a look at the issue:
The first thing to make clear is that a ban on guns is not a ban from existence, it will not automatically make guns disappear from society. (This should be an obvious and trivial point, but some of the arguments used in favour of gun control rely implicitly or explicitly on assuming the ban eliminates guns!)
A ban on guns is simply a legal device that makes the owning of guns a crime.
The effectiveness of legal bans is not 100%. e.g.
There is already a ban on the shooting of innocent people with guns.
Its called murder and has always been a serious crime.
However, this has not stopped innocent people being shot. Indeed every person murdered with a gun, was murdered… despite the ban on shooting innocent people!
Of course, not being 100% effective does not mean that making gun ownership illegal would have no effect.
I can see two effects.
1. Criminals wouldn’t be able to buy guns legally, making it more difficult for them
2. Law abiding citizens would no longer own guns
The Impact on Criminals of Making Gun Ownership Illegal
If gun ownership were made illegal, the difficulty of acquiring illegal guns by criminals would probably not be very high.
Drugs have been illegal for a long time and yet they are available in every city for anyone who wants to buy them.
In the UK, which has strong gun control and no widespread culture of gun ownership, it is still very easy for criminals to acquire guns.
Even without gun control in the USA, only 20% of convicted felons purchased their firearms through a licensed fire arms dealer, 80% preferring the black market.
(Armed & Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons & Their Firearms - Aldine de Gruyter – 1986)
However, it must be acknowledged that banning guns, would have some relatively small effect in reducing criminal gun ownership.
The pro gun control argument runs: “Well if just 100 criminals who would have murdered somebody with a gun, no longer have access to a gun then we have saved 100 lives.”
This argument commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent
The confusion here is that if A wants to Murder B and he doesn’t have a gun, he may still murder Mr B….with a knife, with a baseball bat, hitting him with a car, or in any one of a multitude of other ways.
Guns may be the most convenient tool for the would be murderer (and lack of convenience may stop some murders). But certainly if you hate someone enough to murder them a little inconvenience is hardly an insurmountable obstacle.
Currently 68% of all homicides in the USA involve firearms:
(The claim by the pro gun lobby that more people are killed by baseball bats than guns is an urban myth)
|FBI Homicide Data|
|by Weapon – 2011|
|Firearms, type not stated||1,587||13%|
|Knives or cutting instruments||1,694||13%|
|Blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc.)||496||4%|
|Personal weapons (hands, fists, feet, etc.)1||728||6%|
|Other weapons or weapons not stated||853||7%|
|1 Pushed is included in personal weapons.|
But, a criminal, intent on murder without access to a gun, clearly has a variety of alternative options for killing his victim.
Empirically, you can analyse gun ownership rates against against homicide rates for different countries to see if higher gun ownership leads to more murders, or if a reduction in gun ownership simply substitutes other methods of murder.
A positive correlation would indicate that higher availability of guns increases the homicide rate.
When you actually look at the data there is no statistically significant correlation. On a worldwide level, the relationship is actually negative, for the OECD excluding outliers it is also negative. (If you include the USA and Mexico outliers, you get an insignificant positive correlation. If you don’t understand why its correct to exclude these outliers, then your statistics needs a brush up, for a start you should read this!)
For the Statisticians the adjusted R squared is 0.0%!
For the non statisticians, this means that there is absolutely no relationship between the two.
It seems clear to me that both logically and empirically, the impact of banning guns on reducing criminal homicides would be negligible.
Even the argument that banning assault rifles would stop school killings doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. In most of these cases the killer ends his shooting spree by turning the gun on himself or being shot by the police. It is essentially a suicide mission.
What is to stop the would be killer, without access to such firearms, from becoming a suicide bomber instead, killing as many or more than with an assault rifle but using a few pounds of fertilizer and some home electronics ?
So, moving on to…
The removal of guns from law abiding citizens
The most obvious and visible benefit of removing guns from law abiding citizens would be the elimination of accidental deaths through firearms accidents.
However, as Steven Levitt pointed out in Freakonomics (p149) the risk of firearms accidents very low. The chance of a child drowning in a house with a residential swimming pool is 1/11,000. The chance of a child being killed by a gun in a house with firearms is 1/1,000,000. (i.e. Swimming pool ownership is 100 times more dangerous than firearm ownership!)
If you want to ban fire-arms because they are too risky for private individuals to own, then to be consistent you would also need to ban swimming pools, cars, knives, bicycles, ladders and lots of other fairly innocuous household objects which are far more risky.
The pro gun control argument then runs: ”But if even 100 people where saved from accidents then it would surely be worthwhile. People don’t need guns, they do need cars, ladders, etc”
This line of reasoning suffers from the Broken Window Fallacy, which is to take into account only the superficial and clearly observable effects and ignore significant less obvious effects.
The gun control side of the argument point to the clearly quantifiable deaths caused by gun accidents. They ignore from their calculations all the lives saved because a potential victim was armed when encountering a potentially violent criminal, or the crimes avoided because the criminal feared the potential victim might be armed.
It is analogous to saying that surgery kills thousands of people every year.
That is true, but it is certainly not the whole story, millions of people are also saved from death each year by surgery.
We can only decide if surgery, or gun ownership by law abiding citizens, is a good or bad thing by looking at both sides of the equation, the lives saved as well as the lives lost.
In the case of deaths avoided because law abiding home owners had guns, it is difficult to quantify, but:
A 1982 survey of male felons in 11 state prisons dispersed across the U.S. found:
• 34% had been “scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim”
• 40% had decided not to commit a crime because they “knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun”
• 69% personally knew other criminals who had been “scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim
Clearly the deterrent effect on criminals of law abiding home owners being armed, or having the potential to be armed, has a significant effect in preventing both crimes in action and reducing the number of attempted crimes.
The other difficult to quantify benefit of gun ownership is perhaps the most important from a libertarian point of view.
It is the one that was in the minds of the US founding fathers when they drafted the second amendment to the US constitution, which gives US citizens the right to bear arms:
“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
― Thomas Jefferson
In 2002, the JPFO published a list of genocides in the 20th century that have occurred in countries with gun control.
# 1915 – 1917 Ottoman Turkey, 1.5 million Armenians murdered;
# 1929 – 1953 Soviet Union, 20 million people that opposed Stalin were murdered;
# 1933 – 1945 Nazi occupied Europe, 13 million Jews, Gypsies and others;
# 1927 – 1949 China, 10 million pro communists;
# 1948 – 1952 China, 20 million anti communists;
# 1960 – 1981 Guatemala, 100,000 Mayan Indians Murdered;
# 1971 – 1979 Uganda, 300,000 Christians and Political Rivals of Idi Amin murdered;
# 1975 – 1979 Cambodia, 2 million educated persons murdered.
# 1994 Rwanda 800,000 Tutsi’s murdered.
# 1992 – 1995 Bonsia 200,000 Muslims murdered.
Of course there could never be oppression of the people by the state in the 21st century, just ask the residents of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, North Korea…..
The American constitution did not envisage an impeding tyrannical US government, but it was drafted to protect the citizens from the possibility of one.
So far at least, it has worked:
“The beauty of the Second Amendment is that
it will not be needed until they try to take it.”
― Thomas Jefferson
On the negative side:
Gun control would not stop criminals from killing people either with easily obtainable illegal guns, or with legal substitutes such as knives, bats, etc.
Gun control would disarm law abiding home owners, making them more vulnerable to attacks on person and property by the armed criminals.
Gun control would open the door to the potential of future state oppression.
On the positive side:
Gun control would prevent a small number of firearms accidents, the risk of which is less than drowning in a swimming pool or falling off a ladder.
If you can think about the issues logically, rather than being swept along by, a natural, emotional response to the most recent tragedy, the conclusion seems obvious.