Gun control advocates generally equate absence of guns with safety. Yet gun control in Norway didn’t make more than seventy victims of the island massacre near Oslo safe last year. I’m sure Bashar Assad’s security forces did their best to clear city streets of guns at the beginning of Syria’s civil war. Their success or failure in that project didn’t keep Syrian civilians safe, and wasn’t meant to. In one Middle Eastern country after another, the best gun control would be to remove weapons from the hands of security forces.
On the other side, gun control advocates point to Japan’s strict laws and say, “Look, you don’t see massacres like that in Japan.” Every country is different. Every country has its own way of dealing with guns. As we look at the relationship between regulatory regimes for guns and the amount of gun violence in a country, we can’t say that greater restrictions result in less crime, less violence, or more safety. The roots of insecurity and crime in a given situation reach beyond the availability of guns.
“At least we can make it more difficult to obtain a gun,” say the advocates. “Ease of ownership makes gun crime more likely.” People believe what they want to believe. Gun owners can cite numerous stories of people who were able to protect themselves from intruders because they had a gun in the house. Criminals don’t pick a fight with someone who points a gun at them.
Gun control advocates can’t logically offer counter-examples to stories about self-protection. In places that have strict gun control, how can you point to crimes that weren’t committed because the would-be criminal could not purchase a gun? You can only point to crimes that were committed because the shooter had a gun. The two sides in this argument, using the evidence they have at hand, can blast away at each other as long as they like. Neither side will persuade the other. Logic, evidence, and even constitutional arguments cannot decide the issue. Moreover, neither side cares what the other has to say to begin with.
Here’s another thing to consider as we hear the clamor for gun control after Aurora. We already have gun control. We have federal gun laws, state gun laws, and local gun laws. Advocates say that’s the problem: the laws are a mishmash, they’re not strong enough and they’re not effective. To be effective, they have to be uniform. To be uniform, they have to come from the federal government. If the federal government takes charge of gun control, they say, we’ll have strong, enforceable laws that remove guns from the hands of criminals.
At this point, gun control advocates find themselves in a hard position, as they know a total ban on guns would not work in this country. To hear their arguments, many would be happy with a ban on all guns. If that’s not possible, they reason, we can make exceptions to allow weapons with small magazines clearly designed for hunting or target practice, but not practical for massacres or other mayhem. The main goal for advocates is to keep weapons away from people who want to use them to kill other people. Every time a massacre occurs, it’s proof we have not achieved the goal.
Just as a total ban is problematic, so are exceptions. The more exceptions you make, the less enforceable the new regulatory regime becomes. No gun control advocate wants to replace the current mishmash of locally enforced rules with a federal regime that allows just as many weapons out there. Black and gray markets for guns already exist. A total ban induces every gun owner, whether criminal or not, to participate in black and gray markets for weapons. Exceptions to a total ban also foster more gray markets.
The National Rifle Association and other groups have accepted local regulations. In general, they have not tried to change the state and local laws that already exist. Interestingly, neither have gun control advocates. The battle about gun control concerns federal regulations. The push and pull on this issue is Washington centric: if you can get Congress to go along with your position, the rest of the country will follow. I’m doubtful about whether this regulatory model serves our country well, especially in this area, but it is clearly the model that people who argue about gun control have in mind.
What’s bothersome here is the certitude after Aurora, after Columbine, after every other horrific gun crime, that we would all be more safe if we regulate guns more strictly. Ask James Holmes what he would have done if he could not have purchased an assault weapon. Consider how murderers in other countries obtain their weapons. Compare how murderers in Chicago and Washington DC obtain their weapons with how murderers in other less strictly regulated cities obtain theirs. You could build a worldwide database for gun crime to see how lethal criminals obtain the weapons they use to kill people.
One can guess why gun control advocates do not marshall this kind of evidence to back their arguments. They don’t present evidence of this type because it would not be conclusive. You need only one massacre in well regulated Norway, only one civil conflict in the Middle East to know that you cannot reduce the relationship between gun laws and gun violence to a simple rule: take away our guns so we can be more safe.
In one episode of The Simpsons a long time ago, Homer gets into a dispute with someone. He walks into a local gun store and demands a weapon. The person behind the counter says that he can’t have it. All gun sales require a waiting period of five days. Homer, flustered, bursts out, “I can’t wait five days! I’m mad right now!” As usual, Simpsonian satire doesn’t easily take one side or the other. You know that if Homer truly wanted to shoot someone, he would find a gun, and his plan would not depend on how angry he was five days from now. At the same time, if Homer were actually capable of a crime of passion, his prospective victim is happy he is subject to the wait.
When John Brown raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, we saw an interesting case of gun control. When a civil conflict is brewing, the government takes extra care to enforce its custody of heavy weapons. That’s why the British tramped out to Lexington and Concord: to confiscate the weapons there. I mention these examples because we’ll see a true controversy about possession of firearms in our country if civil conflict reaches that kind of boiling point. Short of that, we will see inconclusive outcomes in the argument. If the controversy revives with each horrific crime committed with a gun, we will have no place to go but the current well established deadlock.