Gun Prohibition

January 20, 2011

The Giffords shooting has revived calls for stricter gun controls. That is unfortunate because, the argument in favor of strict gun controls is essentially the same sort of idealistic, wishful thinking argument that was used to justify Prohibition (the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act).  In a perfect world, Prohibition would be a good idea. In the real world, it is not. With respect to guns, the basic issues are not constitutional but moral and practical.  The practical reality seems to be that in our high crime society, strict controls on carrying hand guns does more harm than good.

The Second Amendment states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  The constitution embodied a grand political compromise, and the Second Amendment like many of its other provisions is ambiguous, perhaps purposely so.

The fundamental moral question is this.  Should a government have the right to deny its citizens the capacity for effective self defense?  For a totalitarian form of government, the answer would be yes.  However, our government is not supposed to be totalitarian.  To deny citizens the right to own weapons that are useful for self defense is a serious restriction of liberty.  Weapons that are useful for self defense do not include tanks, or tactical nuclear devices, but it certainly includes hand guns.  In a free society, it would seem, a basic human right such as the right to self defense should not be abridged unless there is some compelling practical reason for doing so.

The practical question is the same one that faces any proposed Prohibition policy (including prohibition of abortion and marijuana). Does it do more good than harm?   This is essentially a question for science.

The best summary of the scientific evidence that I have seen is in a book called The Dark Side – Tracing the Origins of Male Violence. The author, Michael P. Ghiglieri, is an Anthropology Professor at Arizona. He was a protégé of Jane Goodall and now studies social behavior in chimps. 

Ghiglieri argues that (A) there is no evidence that gun ownership promotes crime (or even accidents to a significant degree) and (B) There is some evidence that it deters crime.

The bulk of his discussion is on pages 119 – 123. Here are his main points.

  • There is no evidence that increased gun availability correlates with increased violent crime.  He cites a review by The National Academy of Sciences Panel on Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior (Reiss and Roth 1993 p 50).
  • Homicide rates in 25 U.S. cities vs. 25 similar Canadian cities are approximately the same for Non-Hispanic Caucasians (Robert J. Mundt’s study in D. B. Kopel 1992).
  • The murder rate in heavily armed Switzerland (where every able-bodied man must keep in his home a fully automatic rifle or pistol) and unarmed Japan are approximately the same, 1.20 vs. 1.23 per 10,000.
  • “Gun Predators” carry high quality, high-caliber, illegally acquired, hand guns with the intent to kill, not to frighten their victims.  Therefore, gun control has little effect on “Gun Predators”, who account for a significant percent of the handgun crime. Here Ghiglieri cites Write and Rossi 1986, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms, p 68.
  • John R. Lott, Jr. examined data from 54,000 concealed carry weapon (CCW) licenses (reported in his book More Guns, Less Crime, Chicago 1998. His data shows that concealed weapons do not promote crime but tend to prevent it. 
    • No CCW permit holder in his study group was convicted of murder.
    • Women who did NOT resist violent aggressors were injured 2.5 times more than women who used guns to resist them.
    • Women who DID resist with a gun were injured only 25% as often as women who resisted without a gun.
  • Based on polling data, the number of Americans who use guns to defend themselves each year is between 760,000 and 3,600,000 (Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, 1992). 
  • The FBI reports that between 1992 and 1996 private citizens shot and killed 1,382 violent offenders, while police killed 2,035.  However, the police killed 5.5 times more “innocent bystanders”.  Private Citizens mistakenly kill 28 people who they thought were intruders.  These were mainly people who slept with their guns next to their bed. 
  • Lott has correlated the crime rate with the rate of carrying concealed weapons. He finds that crime decreases when more people (men or women) carry guns.  The effects of a marginal increase are more interesting.  One additional handgun-carrying woman reduces the murder rate for women by 3 times as much as one additional handgun-carrying man. If you could extrapolate Lott’s numbers, expanding gun ownership would yield huge reductions in the rate of violent crime. 

The conclusion is obvious.  The U.S. has more guns and more crime of all sorts and more gun-related crime than most developed countries.  However, that is a mere correlation, which does not imply causation.  Guns in the hands of criminals may facilitate crime, but bad-guys are not deterred by gun laws.  Guns in the hands of law abiding citizens present potential problems.  Guns might promote accidents or might increase the severity of crimes of passion. However, guns in the hands of law abiding citizens (particularly women) might deter criminals (particularly rapists).  Ghiglieri’s data seems to show that the potential problems are minor and the deterrent value is great.  If follows that as a practical matter, in America, we should seek not stricter gun controls but wider (and safer) use of hand guns for self-defense and deterrence.

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