My Stance on Gun Control

A few days ago, I made a comment on Facebook.  There was a part of me — probably the same part that reminds me how to walk and talk — that expected that this comment would generate some controversy…and it did.  For the record, here is what I said:

Before we all cry out and say “we need stricter gun control laws”, just remember — criminals don’t care what the laws are. There will always be criminals, and they’ll always find a way to get a hold of a gun, regardless of what restrictions you put in place. We keep trying the wrong approach — one of these days, I hope that we figure out that gun control laws aren’t the answer.

This comment was primarily a knee-jerk reaction to certain events that took place that day; and as I kind of expected, a number of people replied to this post (some through other means than Facebook)…some expressing support, and some critical.  I don’t think I’m wrong for what I said, but I didn’t have the time right then to clarify my position further.  So, I’ll take this opportunity to explain my position.

By all accounts, I should be a liberal.  I’m pro-choice.  I support gay marriage.  I’m in favor of legalizing marijuana.  I believe in leaner government, lower taxes, and big business.  And, I drive a Subaru — something which revealed to my extended family that I voted for Obama in the last election and subsequently got me kicked out of the house after my grandmother’s funeral.

However, I’m also something of an enigma, because I’m also in favor of gun rights.  I believe that you should have the right to defend yourself, your home, and your family from those who would wish you harm.  (At the same time, guns scare me and I can’t see myself ever owning one.)  But we seem to have a problem with gun violence in this country, and it seems that people’s natural reaction to a horrible event involving guns is to blame the guns.  I don’t buy this.  There’s an old adage that says “Guns don’t kill people.  I kill people.”  I believe that — the problem is not with guns, the problem is with people.

The cry I hear so often is that we need to do more to stop mass shootings.  “There’s no reason people need to own high-capacity automatic weapons, because their only purpose is to inflict mass casualties,” I hear people say.  Mass shootings are a horrible thing, don’t get me wrong, and on-air executions doubly so, but they are a tiny piece of the problem.  We think they’re a huge problem because they’re a public spectacle, but in reality, they account for less than 1% of all gun-related homicides.  When we put measures in place to try to prevent mass shootings or reduce the amount of damage they can do — like banning automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines — we’re not addressing the real problem.  If we’re going to solve the gun problem in this country, we have to look at how to prevent the other 99%.

The commonly held belief is “less guns, less violence” (and, by extension, “more guns, more violence”).  But there’s a wealth of evidence to the contrary.  Let’s take a look at England and Wales as an example.  After World War I and in the decades since, England and Wales passed a succession of laws restricting the ownership of guns, culminating in the Firearms Act of 1997, which banned almost all handguns.  Did their homicide rate go down as a result?  Sadly, no.  The immediate result of the gun ban was that homicide rates spiked.  It became so bad that by 2000, England and Wales had a violent crime rate higher than any other European nation, and even higher than the United States.  As noted by Professor Joyce Lee Harper of the George Mason University School of Law, gun violence was not a problem until restrictions on their ownership were instituted:

Armed crime, never a problem in England, has now become one. Handguns are banned but the Kingdom has millions of illegal firearms.  Criminals have no trouble finding them and exhibit a new willingness to use them.  In the decade after 1957, the use of guns in serious crime increased a hundredfold. 1

It should be noted that this is not a new conclusion.  Colin Greenwood, a senior English police official, wrote this as part of his thesis for the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology in the early 1970s:

Half a century of strict controls . . . has ended, perversely, with a far greater use of [handguns] in crime than ever before.

England’s homicide rate didn’t start dropping until around 2003-2004, when they massively increased the size of their police force.  It didn’t return to pre-1997 levels until 2010.  This problem is not unique to England — Ireland, Jamaica, Luxembourg, and Russia have all experienced increases in their homicide rates since their respective gun bans went into effect.

During the same period when England was increasing restrictions on gun ownership, many states in the US were relaxing theirs.  During the 1980s and 1990s, half of all US states passed concealed carry laws, allowing responsible citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons in public.  Today, the homicide rate is less than half of what it was in 1980.  This is no coincidence — multiple studies have been able to show a correlation between the increasing prevalence of concealed carry laws and the reduction in the homicide rate in localities where these laws have been passed. 2

The question must be asked, then, why the US has a homicide rate that is so much higher than other countries where strict gun control laws are in place.  For example, the homicide rate in this country is 5.10 per 100,000 people per year (as of 2013), with 3.55 per 100,000 of those being gun homicides.  By contrast, the homicide rate in the United Kingdom is 1.03 per 100,000 people per year (as of 2011/2012), with only 0.06 being gun homicides.  Is it because England has stricter gun controls than the US does?  Not necessarily.  Many European countries had homicide rates that were at all-time lows before gun controls were introduced.  As Professor Malcolm noted:

The peacefulness England used to enjoy was not the result of strict gun laws.  When it had no firearms restrictions [nineteenth and early twentieth century] England had little violent crime, while the present extraordinarily stringent gun controls have not stopped the increase in violence or even the increase in armed violence.

(At the same time, it should be noted that the homicide rate in the US is well below the global average; there are many other countries where you’re far more likely to be murdered than you are in the US.  And, anecdotally, you’re almost twice as likely in this country to be using a gun to kill yourself than you are to be using it to kill someone else.)

My opinion is that if you pass gun control laws, you simply make it harder to defend yourself against someone that intends to do you harm.  You might make it harder for the criminal to obtain a gun, but I’ve long held the belief that criminals don’t care about laws — if they want something badly enough, they’ll find a way around it, ignore it completely, or find another way to accomplish their means.  In that regard, you actually make the law-abiding citizen a more tempting target, since you reduce the possibility that the law-abiding citizen will be able to defend himself.  As noted in a 2007 study published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, having a gun is actually a defective deterrent to committing a crime:

National Institute of Justice surveys among prison inmates find that large percentages report that their fear that a victim might be armed deterred them from confrontation crimes.  “[T]he felons most frightened ‘about confronting an armed victim’ were those from states with the greatest relative number of privately owned firearms.” Conversely, robbery is highest in states that most restrict gun ownership.

It’s not that I don’t think guns are dangerous — they absolutely are — but they’re a tool, just like a hatchet, a band saw, or a power drill.  And like any tool, they can be misused.  If your child attacks someone with a power drill, you blame the child, not the power drill.  Why are guns so different?

So what’s the answer?  I don’t know, but more and more evidence is pointing to the conclusion that gun control laws don’t have an effect on violent crime rates:

In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research.  It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents.  The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s review of then‐extant studies.

I’m in favor of gun rights because I don’t think guns are the problem — people are the problem.  We need to have a conversation in this country about anger, and find ways to address that problem before it escalates to murder.  We need to address the reasons why people kill, not the tools that people use to do it.  Humans are smart and resourceful, and if you take away the tools they need to carry out a task, they will simply find new tools.

  1. See Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?, page 655.
  2. See Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?, page 658, footnote 30.