NOTE: I stumbled across this when posting "Business Licensing and Regulation". I had forgotten about it, but it does seem an interesting example of my earlier writing, so I decided to copy it as well.
I was watching television this morning when it struck me how the entertainment media manages to tell half the story, at most, when it comes to their pet issues. In this case, I was watching a rerun of ER, Eriq La Salle's final episode to be precise. It is, unexpectedly, also used to present one of those boilerplate anti-gun messages. In this case, a mother shot her son on Christmas Eve, mistaking his poking around under the tree for a burglar. Obviously it is intended as a tear-jerker emotional appeal, with the deck completely stacked against responsible gun ownership, presenting not just a mother killing her own son, but on Christmas eve no less.
Now, my first response was to wonder why we never see a television program where a gun owner successfully defends himself. I mean, in reality those incidents far outnumber accidental shooting. When you add in not just killing or wounding intruders, but the cases where they were chased off without the weapon being discharged, it is many, many times the number of accidental shootings*. You would think some show, be it a medical drama, or a cop show, or something would show one of these successful self-defenses, but no. Not a one I can recall. It is always an innocent who is on the receiving end when an ordinary citizen discharges a weapon, often not just a bystander, but a family member, and, more often than not, a child. Hollywood and New York certainly love to pile on the emotional weight when it comes to their anti-gun messages.
But then I thought a bit more, and it struck me that they are missing an even bigger piece of the puzzle.
You see, in the past, gun ownership was much less regulated. In fact, until fairly recent times, regulation was almost nonexistent. And yet, guns were much less in evidence. In rural areas, yes, there were guns, for hunting, for protection from predatory animals, and in really remote areas for crime prevention. And in what few suburbs that existed**, and there were very few, there were some gun owners too***. But in the cities, by and large, guns were not seen. Perhaps a few .22s for those plagued by rats, and maybe a gun under the counter of stores in particularly bad neighborhoods, but looking at it with modern eyes, it is likely that the number of guns in cities actually increased during the era of strict gun control, even measured on a per capita basis.
And that is where I think those making ardent anti-gun messages make their mistake, as they often are the advocates of the other policy which created the demand for guns. By which I mean the various "prison reform" and "social justice" movements in cities, the entire panoply of soft-on-crime policies which have resulted in rampant lawlessness in America's cities. And the primary reason that most city dwellers who own guns bought them.
Now cities have always had more crime than rural areas, just because having that many individuals in close proximity gives more opportunity, as well as the concentrations of wealth providing more targets. And then the anonymity of most urban settings makes carrying out a crime easier, as there are fewer to question signs of new found wealth. But in the past crime was still of a limited sort, restricted to certain areas, certain times, and otherwise predictable. It is only in the past half century that we have seen cities decay to the point where some saw daylight muggings in their most wealthy business districts. And this is largely the result of modern policies which have made it much less "costly", in terms of prison time, to commit crimes.
The logic is simple. When a criminal plans on committing a crime he considers several things, whether he consciously recognizes it or not. He considers how much he is likely to take, how likely it is he will be caught, how much time he will serve if he is caught, and how likely it is the victims or police (or a bystander) might shoot him. We dealt with the final one already, and the first should be obvious. It is the middle items where public policy has made crime easier. By making prison time shorter, and prisons more comfortable, modern "reform" movements have made the potential "cost" of crime lower. A man who faces 20 years for a robbery is less likely to commit the crime than a man facing 2 years. The return has to be much higher to make the potential cost worthwhile.
Of course some will doubt criminals actually make such calculations, in their minds criminals are simple minded beings who take nothing into account but their desires to obtain things. And, to be fair, there may be a few such simple minded criminals, as crime does not tend to attract the best and brightest, despite the television trope of the "criminal genius". So allow me to make the second argument. Even for those who do not consider the possible punishments, longer prison sentences serve as a deterrent in a second way. If you are in jail, you aren't committing crimes. So even if you never consider the possible consequences, a longer prison sentence serves to reduce crime by keeping more criminals off the streets, leaving them unable to offend again. By releasing them earlier, we increase dramatically the number of crimes one criminal can commit in a lifetime.
And that change is, for the most part, the greatest reason that otherwise law abiding citizens feel the need to keep weapons in the city. Oh, some may have bought guns anyway, for sport shooting, or hunting, or out of an interest in guns. A few may have bought them for other reasons****. But for the most part, urban dwellers buy guns because the cities have become much less safe, and cities are much less safe because we coddle criminals.
And that is why I say that the entertainment media fails to tell the whole story. While they are busy creating the fraudulent image that gun owners are more likely to kill innocent children than a criminal, I wish they would just take a few minutes to point out that part of the reason there are so many gun owners is because in our kid glove treatment of criminals we have created a great crime wave which makes such self-defense necessary.
* The other part of the picture is actually impossible to measure. In states where guns are less strictly regulated, it seems likely criminals are going to think twice about home invasions and even simple burglaries where there is a chance someone is home. However, we will never have a perfect measure of how many crimes are deterred by this awareness. Just as in states with easy concealed carry licenses we will never know exactly how many muggings and robberies never happened because of fear of armed citizens. Some will toss out statistical approximations, but I have to be wary of such numbers, as they are always a big part guess work. Still, it seems only logical that the awareness your prospective victim may be armed will discourage a certain percentage of criminals. Not all, as the gun battles between drug dealers attest, but there are many less bold criminals and it is clear some percentage of those will be dissuaded from breaking in to an occupied home by the worry that they may face a gun.
** Suburbs, as such, are a modern invention of the automotive age. A few cities had "suburbs" connected by rail, but they were effectively small towns in close proximity to cities, not really anything like modern suburbs. Still, as they were more like modern suburbs than rural areas, I shall consider them such for our purposes.
*** I am ignoring sport shooting here, as shooting as a sport is a modern invention, so seems anachronistic to even mention in an 18th and 19th century context. Int he 20th century sport shooting does predate the modern fascination with regulating guns, so I suppose it can be include din the list, but as it was responsible for such a small part of gun ownership, when compared to hunting or control of vermin and predators that I can ignore it.
**** Before an ardent second amendment activist tells me what I already know, I realize the primary purpose was to protect citizens against an oppressive state. However, I have a feeling very few citizens arm themselves for that reason, whether or not it was the founders' intent. So, without crime, I have a feeling almost all who would own guns would own them because they were either hunters or sport shooters, and not for any political motive. A few probably would, but not any considerable numbers. Of course, I may be wrong, I have no firm numbers to support my belief, but I have to say I have met very few gun owners who own them because of political convictions.
In my discussion of the costs of crime I completely disregarded the social stigma once attached to crime. Though I think in some communities it might have provided an additional disincentive to criminality, I have a feeling most readers would have been skeptical of such claims, so I completely ignored it. In many ways, this relates to the topics I discussed in "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", so I suggest anyone interested in the thought of social controls should read those, as well as "Changing Incentives", which deals with social controls in a more general way.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/10/02.