Saturday, February 17, 2007

The high cost of gun control.

I have been a victim of violent crime. On one occasion a bullet narrowly missed my head. Yet I have never owned a handgun though I was considering it seriously at one point. The truth is that not someone inclined to purchase a firearm.

Now the horrific shooting in Salt Lake City did cause me to consider that situation. And I can not but conclude that lives were saved because one shopper was armed, in apparent violation of shopping mall policy. But there is another side to the debate as well.

Would a systematic attempt to disarm people prevent violent crime or reduce the rate of violent crime? In fact, does it reduce the rate of violent gun crime?

Recently there were several murders in London as the result of gun violence. And the BBC’s web site ran some information on gun crimes in England and Wales. And the truth is that gun violence has escalated dramatically. Look at this chart that they ran today.

You can see how dramatically gun crime escalated in England in recent years. Yet, I distinctly remember that not that long they imposed what amounted to a total ban on private possession of firearms. I did a check at the London Telegraph and found that one columnist wrote a column in 2003 about what he called “the Government’s ‘total ban’ five years ago”. That would be 1998.

Now I assume the BBC chart accurately reflects gun crimes. And I see the following. There is a major spike from around 1988 to about 1992. Then gun crimes begin to slowly drop only to have another major spike, bigger than the previous one. So some history on recent gun control legislation in the UK.

In 1988 the Conservative government pass new legislation would banned all semiautomatic and pump-action rifles,short shotguns and several other kinds of weapons. Gun crime rose as a result, it didn’t decline. That was a reaction to man going on the rampage and killing several people.

In 1996 another man went on the rampage and did the same thing and in 1997 the government passed new legislation that virtually banned ownership of handguns except for very old, collectors guns. The measure is so extreme that not even the British Olympic shooters can't train inside England. And the government had to pass legislation granting an exception for the 2012 Olympics otherwise the shooting events would have been illegal.

So two major pieces of legislation followed by two major spikes in gun crimes.

Professor Joyce Malcolm is the author of Guns & Violence: the English Experience. On the BBC web site she wrote, “violent crime in America has been plummeting for 10 consecutive years, even as British violence has been rising. By 1996 English rates of violent crime were already far higher than America’s for every major violent crime except murder and rapes” But as the chart we ran in a previous article showed more and more US states have been allowing citizens to carry firearms on their person. So more guns in the general public but “plummeting” crime rates while in England fewer guns increased violent crime.

Malcolm writes that: “The price of British government insistence upon a monopoly of force comes at a high social cost.”

Malcolm notes that cultural factors more than gun ownership effects crime rates and that for most of the last two hundred years guns were equally available in the UK as in the US yet the US still had gun crime rates five times higher than in the UK. But in recent years as weapons have been banned in the UK, but become more prevalent in the US, crime rates in the UK rose while falling in the US.

Certainly the gun control culture has taken over the UK. It is illegal to even own toy guns. And it is basically illegal to defend your own life with a weapon even if the weapon is not a gun. When Eric Butler was being strangled and attacked by two men he used an ornamental sword to defend himself. He was tried and convicted for carrying an offensive weapon. When a toy gun was used to fool two burglars and hold them at bay until the police arrived the police arrested the homeowner for intimidating the burglars. And in another case an elderly man living alone had his home broken into repeatedly. And in his area there were no regular police. During one break in he shot the two men robbing him. He went to prison for life and the government gave one of the attackers legal assistance to help him sue the victim.

Malcolm also makes an important point about British crime figures.
“The murder rates of the U.S. and U.K. are also affected by differences in the way each counts homicides. The FBI asks police to list every homicide as murder, even if the case isn't subsequently prosecuted or proceeds on a lesser charge, making the U.S. numbers as high as possible. By contrast, the English police "massage down" the homicide statistics, tracking each case through the courts and removing it if it is reduced to a lesser charge or determined to be an accident or self-defense, making the English numbers as low as possible.”

Homicides, even with the more expanded definition in the US, have fallen dramatically over the last 15 or so years. Homicides rates are now justly lightly higher than they were in the 1950s, a period that has often been idealized for Americans. If you look at this chart from the Bureau of Justice Statistics you will see that the homicide rate in the 50s was just under 5 for each 100,000 population. It doubled during the late 60s and early 70s and then fluctuated until about 1990 when it declined again leveling out at slightly over 5 per 100,000 population.

The evidence doesn’t seem to support the idea that gun control is the same thing as crime control. There is an old slogan “that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns”. Certainly the criminal class don’t worry about breaking laws so gun control tends to be victim disarmament. And the knowledge that the population is disarmed only gives criminals peace of mind and assurance that their occupational choices are a lot safer than before.

Guns are inanimate objects with no will or life or their own. They do not act. They are acted upon. And their “only” purpose is not to kill but also to protect and prevent killing. Certainly in Salt Lake City the presence of one armed man prevented a killer from taking more lives. And in England restricting firearms has lead to a dramatic rise in violent crime while in the US the greater availability of firearms corresponds with a dramatic decline in crime rates.

And history is filled with incidents which also show firearms to be a virtue and sad tales where the lack of firearms was deadly. I doubt that anyone would literally argue that the people of Warsaw would have benefited if they had fewer guns on August 1, 1944 when they rose up against the Nazi oppressors. They faced an occupying army 15,000 but they were 40,000. But of those 40,000 only 2,500 had guns. This was the same fate one year earlier of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. On April 19, 1943 Nazi troops entered the ghetto to round up the last remaining Jews for deportation to the camps. A relatively small band 750 fighters chased the Nazis out. For one month the people of the ghetto held out. But the ruling regime won and 7,000 Jews were executed on the spot and the rest send to the concentration camps where most died.

Certainly there is a truth, as we have seen, that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. But it is also true that when guns are outlawed only governments will have guns. And governments have been responsible for more murders than all the private criminals put together. Often oppression has won because the state had the monopoly on force.

I am uncomfortable owning a firearm so I don’t. I never have owned one. I would prefer to live in a world where it was unnecessary to do so. But I would also prefer to live in a world where tax shelters were unnecessary but that isn’t likely anytime soon. I am a realist when it comes to firearms. And as much as I wish they were not necessary the evidence is too strong that they are.

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