Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Weakest Gun Control Argument

NOTE: The following eight articles are cited in my essay "A Matter of Perspective, or, Not So Off-Topic After All". As they were originally posted in my now defunct blog Random Notes, I am reproducing them here.

Gun control activists always seem to argue that were we to legalize all handguns, or, worse still, liberalize concealed carry laws, then our streets would become the "wild west" with people shooting one another on the slightest pretext.

Actually, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Despite the popular perception and image in the movie, the "wild west" was hardly as lawless and filled with gunfights as many think. Yes there was trouble in rail encampments, hastily built mining towns, and other places, but mostly drunken brawls, not mass shootouts. Most major settlements, far from being plagued by gunfights, were kept relatively law abiding by a handful of professional law men and the prospect of an armed, impromptu citizen's militia.

But let us ignore that truth, though it too argues my point, and pretend their caricature of the "wild west" is true. Does history support the idea that somehow we would turn into Beirut circa 1985 without strict gun laws?

Well, if we look from the earliest colonial era through the Civil War, we do not see any massive incidents of gun violence. At least none which were not part of a war or insurrection. Guns were universally legal, were readily available, at least to the extent any manufactured metal good were. And yet the incidence of gun violence is minimal. I know there is much dispute among scholars over how common guns were, but that doens't really matter. The point is that anyone who wanted a gun could have one, and yet the nation did not turn into a free for all of gun violence. People were generally well behaved despite the ready availability of firearms.

Of course, some will say that I am talking about long guns, and that the pistol was truly what caused the problems. So, let us turn to the ear from the end of the Civil War through 1930. During this era there were substantial changes. Not only were pistols to supplant long guns as the weapon of choice in some contexts, but the cities were subjected to rapid growth, as well as rapid industrialization.

It is interesting. Whenever we discuss guns int he past, critics bring up "unique" modern features which make today's gun problem different from the past. They talk about urbanization, industrialization, pistols being in use rather than rifles, urban crime, gangs, drugs, and claim all of them make modern circumstances ideal for gun violence.

However, all of those existed in the period between the civil war and 1930. The cities were growing rapidly, with displaced rural dwellers, blacks migrating from the south and foreign immigrants forming large, impoverished neighborhoods that provided labor for the burgeoning industrial sector. Drugs were becoming an increasingly popular pass time among the poor (and others), leading tot he birth of many state drugs laws in the 1920's and 1930's. There was not one feature of modern life which was missing between 1865 and 1930, except for gun laws.

And what was the outcome?

Nothing. Or almost nothing. Despite popular perceptions of the "roaring twenties" and gangster violence, an objective look at the record shows that gun violence anywhere close to today's levels would have been shocking tot he people of the 1920's. Our murder rates would have seemed outrageous.

Nor, despite the claims of gun control advocates, did the ready availability of guns create their feared "wild west". Citizens did own guns, but even during periods of social unrest or excessive crime, these citizens did not resort to shoot on sight strategies. By and large, citizens who owned guns behaved responsibly, using their guns to hunt and defend themselves, without shooting randomly at every stranger. As in all eras, criminals committed crimes, a few citizens behaved irresponsibly, and most behaved like adults and rarely used guns, and then only for practical or defensive purposes.

So, if the past had so little trouble, why is gun violence so prevalent today? And if gun control is not the answer, then how do we stop gun violence?

The answer is obvious, if we start asking the right questions. Rather than looking at GUN violence, and staring at the gun, we need to look at the hand holding it. Modern gun violence, despite the myths spread by gun control advocates, is not committed by paranoid citizens looking to defend themselves and shooting strangers. Modern gun violence, as throughout most of the past, is committed by criminals. Our modern surge in violence is not related to guns, but to crime, specifically to the modern surge in crime.

And if criminals are committing most gun violence, then new laws will not help. Most criminals are already barred form owning guns. The guns they use they possess illegally already*. So making them more illegal will do nothing to stop this violence. If a criminal commits crimes, why would making gun ownership illegal stop him?

The solution to modern violence is not in gun laws, not in creating more, or even in enforcing the ones we have. The solution is to return to one thing we had in the past, the enforcement of criminal laws. I wrote about this before, so I will not go into details. All I will say is that it is noteworthy that the worst violence of our time is in the cities controlled by the most liberal politicians. Those who hope to reform criminals, who worry about racial disparities or excessive punishment always produce the worst crime rates. 

Is it not possible that, rather than passing new gun laws, the answer to stopping gun violence may not be to keep criminals in jail longer? Even if it doesn't dissuade them from a life of crime, the fact remains that while they are in jail they can't commit crimes against the general public.

So, if the answer to crime is not gun laws, but imprisonment; and if current gun laws don't effect criminals; and if gun laws serve only to keep guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens; and if history shows that law abiding citizens have generally handled guns responsibly; what exactly is the argument for even our current gun laws, much less any new ones?

To be honest, I see none. If one is a law abiding citizen without a felony record, I really have no objection to allowing him to carry a concealed weapon**. What do we have to fear from a responsible adult exercising his right to self defense? Unless we assume most citizens are irresponsible and foolish, I cannot see how we can deny them that right.


* Actually, another noteworthy feature of modern gun violence is how much is committed by shooters under the legal age to own a handgun. If they cannot legally buy their guns, then how will new gun restrictions have any effect?

** In reality, I would even be willing to forgo licensing at all, and simply treat guns the way we treat knives, clubs, and other potentially lethal items. But as some argue that we MUST keep guns out of the hands of felons, I can compromise and allow licensing , provided the concealed carry laws are 'will issue', rather than 'may issue'.  But ideally I would have the government ignore guns entirely, treating guns (and any other weapon) the way it treats any other good, as something of no interest until it is used improperly.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2008/07/09.    

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