Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lessons for the law-abiding from Greece

Lest night's episode of the excellent Travel Channel show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, brought the boozing, snarky celebrity chef to Greece for overindulgence in local cuisine, booze, music, dance and firearms. Firearms? Yes, not only did Bourdain hunt quail with a shotgun, but an outdoor raki-fueled picnic on Crete featured one of the participants firing his pistol in the air as part of the raucous festivities.

But Greece is supposed to have strict gun-control laws. In fact, Greece does have strict gun-control laws. Shotguns are relatively easy to come by for hunting, but handguns and even rifles are tightly restricted. According to an online posting by a Greek gun owner:

There are generally two ways that one can legally get a gun in Greece.

One is, if your life is in danger, due to your job, social status or functionality, or if you have some good friends in the right places. In that case, you can easily obtain, what is known as a Concealed Self-Protection Carrying Permit (let's call it CSCP, for short). This permit allows you to have only one gun and a very limited amount of cartridges (30 or usually less). Now, if you are allowed to have 30 rounds, you can only fire, let's say half of them for practice. How can a person be trusted to protect his own life with so little practice is of course beyond my comprehension.

The second reason that entitles you to own a firearm, is to be an athlete in a shooting sport. This permit allows you to have more than one guns (usually a 0.22 LR, a 0.32 or 0.38 or 9mm, etc) in order to be able to participate in the corresponding shooting matches. In order to get such a permit, you must be a member of an athletic shooting club for several months, and to have participated in several matches (using either your friend's guns or your clubs guns, if they have any). The club is responsible for supplying you with cartridges you need for your practice sessions and your participation in shooting matches. Of course, this permit does not allow you to carry your gun(s) on yourself. You are only allowed to transport you guns in bags or suitcases to and from the shooting range. For those interested to know I have this kind of permit.

It's unlikely that the fellow on No Reservations was expending his limited legal allotment of ammo for the edification of Bourdain and company, so chances are that at least his ammunition was illegally owned, and it's a fair bet that the gun itself wasn't one familiar to the authorities. Nevertheless, he felt perfectly comfortable popping off rounds in front of a TV crew.

Why? Well, the answer may be found in another part of that Greek gun owner's post:

...there are some areas in Greece, like Crete and Mani, where guns are not that restricted. That does not come from these areas having different legislation that the rest of the country. It is more of a customary habit than anything else, which however is endorsed by some politicians.

OK -- so the festive-minded gunman was probably taking advantage of Crete's traditional nudge-and-wink attitude toward the country's gun laws.

In fact, as of 2005, the Greek government estimated that the country's population of 11 million harbored 1.5 million illegal firearms.

Actually, that's not all that surprising. Americans with an eye toward "reforming" the way things are done in the United States are fond of pointing toward tighter gun control laws in the UK, higher taxes in France or hate-speech laws elsewhere. But while touting the alleged virtues of the rules imposed by other governments, Americans with statute-envy miss an important point: The people of the United States are a lot more likely to actually obey the deficient laws to which they are subject than the citizens of many other countries are to even notice the oh-so enlightened legislation that they enjoy. Greece may have much tighter gun control laws than the U.S., but the descendants of Plato and Socrates clearly take those laws with a very large grain of salt -- and a case of 9mm ammunition.

In many countries, passing laws often seems to be more an exercise in letting eager young parliamentarians vent their elitist frustrations (and satisfy the letter of various international treaties) than an actual effort to change the way life is lived by the majority of people. The laws get passed and the enforcers do their best to make folks obey, but compliance ... well, compliance is another matter.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a Flemish law professor in the early 1990s that somehow drifted into a discussion of the apparent willingness of Europeans to pay much higher taxes than Americans. Was it because Europeans really wanted a higher level of services and were willing to pay accordingly?

The professor laughed and told us that he couldn't speak for all Europeans, but Belgians weren't any more eager to pay than Americans -- they just thought they were getting something for nothing. Belgians, he said, all thought they were the best tax evaders in the world. They weren't entirely right about that -- they paid more than they anticipated -- but they held back tax money at a rate undreamed of by Americans.

Taxes are a good place to start when comparing the willingness of different peoples to submit to the law, since they're the easiest laws for which to quantify compliance. Oddly enough, even though compliance should be relatively easy to calculate, official figures are hard to com by. But according to the latest figures, Americans have a roughly 84% rate of compliance with the federal income tax. By contrast, orderly, reputedly law-abiding Switzerland had an estimated tax-compliance rate of about 78% as of 1995 (figures here in PDF format). That's Switzerland, which could be expected to be a model of compliance among Western European countries. (As for that professor's beloved Belgium ... Time says "tax evasion is a national sport" in the country.)

America's myth of rugged individualism runs up against its surprisingly law-abiding nature as compared to the countries from which its citizens originally came.

Of course, America's law-abiding nature evolved in a climate of relatively light-handed governance and stable institutions. While Europeans groaned under authoritarian monarchs, totalitarian regimes and unrestrained majorities, the United States enjoyed a comparatively hands-off approach. Since most laws made sense or, at least, weren't terribly objectionable, it was easy to obey them and assume that the neighbors should do the same.

Not that Americans have been sheep. When something particularly nasty, like Prohibition, came around, non-compliance became, pace Belgium, a national sport.

But American government is no longer so light-handed. Rules proliferate like weeds -- smoking bans, light-bulb prohibitions ... and, of course, gun laws and higher taxes. Laws no longer seem so easily tolerated as they once were. When laws become too numerous, intrusive and overall objectionable, it's unlikely that they'll long command the respect and obedience of the people subject to them.

I'll lay odds that, before too long, the United States will soon be a place where breaking the law in front of a TV camera seems as reasonable to the average person as it was to Anthony Bourdain's Greek host.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched that 'No Reservations' show last night. Your article matches up well. They were on the island of Crete when they had the raki-fest and the gun shooting.

The sheer amount of new laws passed every year in federal, state, and local areas just amazes me continually. Rarely do laws get removed or repealed, but always more and more added on, until no one but lawyers can understand them. And yet when it comes to the people, they say, 'Ignorance is no defense.'

I called up the Kansas State Prosecutor's office the other day to inquire about the legality of a particular matter... and they refused. I read them the law as stated in the Kansas Law Codes, and then asked if a particular incident was legal or not. They advised me they were unable to 'dispense legal advice' as to whether or not an action was illegal.

It kind of frustrated me, because you'd think you could call your State and ask them what the laws you're supposed to comply with say! I kept pressing and kept getting rejected.

Eventually, I got them to admit they couldn't even tell me if killing someone was illegal or not. I said, "If I pick up a gun, go outside and shoot someone in the street, is that murder?"

They said I was being silly, and that certain things should be 'obvious'... to which I responded, "Shouldn't all laws be obvious?" They kept saying I should contact an attorney to find out if something was legal or not... I guess the State Attorney's Office wasn't the place for me to call!

So they'll pass a law, but can't tell us if we actually broke the law, until we break the law and then they decide to prosecute...and then it turns out you only broke the law when you're found guilty. So...until convicted, nothing is against the law, basically. Even murder. What a great justice system!

January 29, 2008 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, this is Alex again.

Excellent post. One thing comes to mind: the fact that Americans are in a habit of obeying the law is one more reason to keep abortions legal.

Sorry to change the subject, but everything is related when it comes to government control of our lives.

In every Latin American country, abortions are illegal. And yet, any Latin American woman who wants to have an abortion can relatively easy obtain one (source: my very good friends in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala).

But it will not be the case in USA if they ever succeed in outlawing abortions. Here, when they say "illegal", they actually mean it.

Keep writing - it's worth it!


January 29, 2008 12:39 PM  
Blogger Rod said...

Reading "Lessons for the law-abiding from Greece", you discuss tax compliance in other countries. I think you are missing something important. Our government just doubled the national debt in the last administration and did so without taxing or floating an extraordinary bond issue. So long as the federal government controls the money supply, there is no need for the feds to tax. So I ask you the question rhetorically, why does the IRS continue to exist?

December 7, 2008 8:43 AM  
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^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 18, 2009 11:44 PM  

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