Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gun control inevitable? Not likely

An interesting article in the Virginian-Pilot discusses the tendency of many Virginians to respond to incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting by pushing for looser firearms laws and public carry of weapons rather than (as many newspaper editors would prefer) stricter controls or outright confiscation. Jarringly, though, the article includes this peek into the editors' heart of hearts:

Others who have studied the issue think urbanization will eventually swing the pendulum toward more gun control. Out in the country, firearms represent a way of life; in the city, they represent crime. As rural interests lose political power, the strongest gun supporters won't have as much say...

Ah yes, demographic inevitability, the last refuge of political losers.

But that odd little statement is more than an ideological wish-upon-a-star; it's a window into an odd sort of political theology, and a massive misunderstanding of how the world works.

First of all, there's the strange idea that urbanization necessarily dictates a change in attitudes toward guns. Often, that's so, but it's not inevitable. In my experience, the cities of Arizona are as well and happily armed as the rest of the state, and that's true throughout much of the West.

Then there's the peculiar delusion that, even if urbanization does shift attitudes, 50 percent plus one is a form of political alchemy that anoints with righteousness (and effectiveness) any dominant faction's efforts to dictate terms to the minority. Philosophically, the whole idea is suspect; are 49 people really bound to bow down to 51, just because? And practically, history has shown raw majoritarianism to be a non-starter. Minorities that don't want to give up a valued practice, lifestyle or possession simply don't submit to the law. Majorities have, time and again, been thwarted on efforts to raise taxes, ban alcohol, outlaw drugs, criminalize sodomy or otherwise alter the behavior of any significant portion of the population unwilling to be so altered.

But we're talking about guns, so let's look at the success -- or lack thereof -- of gun laws around the world.

In Gun Control and the Reduction in the Number of Arms (PDF), Dr. Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, wrote in 2000:

Non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event. In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities. ...

Following the restriction in 1983 of certain "military-style" rifles in Canada, the compliance rate was estimated as between 3 and 20% for different models. ...

In Austria in 1995 pump-action shotguns were prohibited. While new acquisition is next to impossible since then, already legally held guns could only be kept on a special permit. Out of an original stock estimated at 60 000 guns, only 10 557 have been either surrendered or registered. As the estimate on imports covers only the last ten years, total legal imports must certainly have been even higher.

Actually, I think Dr. Csaszar is being unduly generous to the Australian government over the success of the 1996 ban. Three years after Australians surrendered 643,000 semiautomatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, Inspector John McCoomb, head of the Queensland Weapons Licensing Branch, publicly admitted defeat.

"About 800,000 (semi-automatic and automatic) SKK and SKS weapons came in from China back in the 1980s as part of a trade deal between the Australian and Chinese governments," Insp McCoomb said. "And it was estimated that there were 1.2 million semi-automatic Ruger 10/22s in the country. "That's about 2 million firearms of just two types in the country."

I very much doubt that compliance surpassed ten percent.

Dr. Csaszar emphasizes, "the effects of changes in legislation which is to reduce the number of already legally owned guns depends on whether the existing stock has been already registered." So, is registration an effective way to go? Can you sidle into tougher laws by first getting an accurate tally of who has what?

Dr. Csaszar again:

In Germany the general registration of long guns was enforced in 1972. The existing stock was estimated at between 17 and 20 millions, while only 3,2 million guns have been registered within the legally set period. In England out of an estimated stock of 300 000 legally acquired semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, it would appear that fewer than 100 000 have been registered. In Austria the registration of "C" category rifles of EC nomenclature (any type except semi-automatic) was enacted in 1996. It is estimated that between 500 000 and 1 million rifles have been registered, while the existing stock has been estimated at about 2 to 3 millions.

For a more U.S.-specific example, there's a New York Times report on the success of California's 1989 law requiring registration of many rifles.

Nine days before the deadline, thousands of Californians are defying a ground-breaking state requirement that they register their military-style semiautomatic guns. ...

As a one-year registration period draws toward an end on Dec. 31, only about 7,000 weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in the state have been registered. This non-compliance has virtually nullified the first step of a March 1989 law that set the pattern for similar attempts to limit ownership of assault rifles in other states and in Washington.

OK. But most gun control advocates don't favor total confiscation, and they're willing to slowly work their way toward tighter rules. How about ... just making the process of obtaining permits and licensing weapons so annoying that people give up?

Says Dr. Csaszar:

[I]n Austria the costs involved in obtaining a license for "B"-category guns (mostly handguns), including psychological screening and a basic firearms instruction, are already higher than the price of a quite serviceable handgun on the black market. This is a strong incentive for illegal acquisition even without criminal intent. Although no one would doubt the benefits of checking the personal character and the technical knowledge of a prospective gun owner, one invariably has to accept that there are also disadvantages.

The overall effects of such defiance can be impressive. In 2005, the Greek government estimated that the country's 11 million people own 1.5 million illegal guns. Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service estimates that the country's 60 million people own as many as four million illegal guns. The German police union and the Forum Waffenrecht, a gun rights group, both peg the number of illegal firearms owned by Germany's 82 million people at 20 million.

So we're not just talking about some small criminal fringe defying the law. If Germans hold enough illegal guns to arm every fourth person, it's a sizable chunk of the population that's flouting the law by keeping millions of guns in circulation.

But maybe that's sufficient. After all, some guns are taken out of circulation, some guns are registered, and, we've "sent a message." Is that enough to declare victory?

Well ... enough for what?

Do you just want to reduce the number of firearms in civilian hands? The latest estimate by the Small Arms Survey is that American civilians own some 270 million firearms (PDF). Even assuming that gun control advocates actually do want full-on confiscation (a position I believe to be held only by the hardest of the hard core), the 20 percent compliance rate estimated for the Australian gun confiscation of 1996 by Dr. Csaszar would bring stockpiles down to 216 million guns -- all illegally held by tens of millions of deliberately defiant owners. Is that what's going to make you sleep better at night?

Well ... maybe you want to reduce crime. Will even partial compliance have that effect? Don't count on it. Australia's Courier Mail reported in 2006:

And while legal gun ownership is on the rise, illegal use of firearms is not decreasing, despite an initial decline following the introduction of restrictive laws in 1996.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the number of robberies involving weapons across the nation is the same as it was five years ago.

The number of abductions involving weapons is higher, and while there has been a fall in firearm murders, more than a quarter of attempted murders involved guns.

Bond University criminologist Paul Wilson said: "There are indications guns are being used illegally more than a few years ago, and a stark look needs to be taken into whether firearm laws are losing their effectiveness."

Britain's The Independent had similar news in 2005:

UK gun crime might not rival that of the US, but the problem is frightening and growing. There were more than 10,000 offences in England and Wales involving the use of firearms in 2003-04. Weapons such as Brococks were used in 2,150 offences, an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year.

Also on the rise is the number of victims shot: 440 people were seriously wounded by firearm in 2003-04, up five per cent on the previous year.

Even when handguns were banned, only around 3,000 of the 100,000 believed to have been in private hands before May 2004 have been handed in for destruction. The other 97,000 have disappeared.

That's no shocker. As Dr. Csaszar points out:

[A]fter the reduction in the number of legally held guns it would appear that there is not a comparable decrease in armed crime. This is to be expected, as the guns turned in are usually not the ones involved in crime, and the people who turn in weapons are generally the least likely to commit a crime.

Laws do have effects, but they're not always those intended by their authors. Targeting any group has the effect of putting that group into an adversarial relationship with the government and with law enforcement. Australia's Inspector McCoomb made the point in 1999 that resistance had now hardened among gun owners, saying, "The perception in the shooting community is that 'if you know all about my guns, you'll soon take them all off me'."

And those guns don't remain frozen in place. They're traded and supplemented by smuggled and illegally manufactured weapons. A black market is created or expands, controlled (by definition) by criminals.

A personal note here: Until 1999, when I moved to the very different legal climate of Arizona, I represented the third generation of firearms scofflaws in my family. For over half a century, Tuccilles cheerfully disregarded New York's draconian gun permit and registration laws. My family's outlaw status may have gone back further in time, since I simply don't know whether or not my great-grandfather was armed. The situation reached a pinnacle of absurdity in the mid 1990s when I applied for a New York City pistol permit so I could legally shoot at a range. My background was checked, my fingerprints taken, my wallet lightened -- all while I had an illegal "assault weapon" purchased on the sly stashed in my East Village apartment.

I could only smile one day at police headquarters when, after an extended session of sullen, systematic abuse intended to dissuade all us permit applicants, one man stood up, loudly vowed to purchase a gun illegally, and stalked out of the room.

Amen, brother.

So, will urbanization bring about a shift in public attitudes easing the way for tighter gun control laws?


Will the passage of new and tighter laws be effective?

Only if you want to alienate millions of Americans from the government, increase contempt for the law, breed black markets and, potentially, increase the crime rate.

If I haven't made it clear yet, I don't think that firearms are a special case in this regard. By and large, societies are not the malleable molding clay to be shaped by legislation that "reformers" would have us believe. Societies are more like balloons; squeeze in one spot, and they bulge elsewhere. Whatever your particular cause, reshaping the world you live in solely by the force of law is a thankless, and probably impossible, task.

Even if that spells doom for your particular concern, you might take heart in that lesson. Who wouldn't rather live in a world of stubborn people who insist on making their own decisions, rather than one populated by drones who simply do what t hey're told?

That may mean you don't get to remake the world to do your bidding. But it also means that people who want to remake you won't get their way either.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

People who hate guns... don't own guns. And in almost all cases, know little-to-nothing about guns.

Ergo, you have to establish a reference point that these types of people will understand... comparing them to a device they can relate to...

* A device that is single-handedly putting every American life at astronomical risk.

* A device that kills THOUSANDS of people everyday.

* A device that is used by virtually every criminal in American society to enact and/or empower them in their criminal activities.

* A device that is slowly and methodically murdering people on a genocidal level and is arguably leading mankind to extinction.

* A device, that if used inappropriately is legally considered a deadly-weapon in all 50 states.

* A device that is currently being used as a weapon by hostile foreign powers to lay siege and embargo against American interests.

* A device that enjoys absolutely no Constitutional protection, rights or privileges, whatsoever...

A device that is more commonly known as... a car.

Law abiding citizens don't use their cars to murder, oppress and enact crimes against their neighbors.

Cars are nothing more than tools, used to better our way of life, support our families and maintain our freedoms...

The same is true for guns. Outlawing guns does not hamper nor effect criminals. Criminals commit crimes, and generally have a disregard for all laws, gun-control or otherwise.

All that happens when guns are outlawed, is that average, law-abiding citizens become criminals, by definition alone.

Cars and guns don't commit crimes.

People do.

G.C. Hutson

June 29, 2008 6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

its not that people dont hate guns its that they dont like ideals of the uses that guns can be used for.
i mean yes poeple dont know but poeple dont take the time to know my fellow shooters and i in indiana agree that if you are to own a gun you should know how and what it is to be used for which generally in most cases is in self defense but people dont understand the meaning of self defense anymore things just happen you sont plan on your weapon being used to kill someone in fact i bet when you bought your first gun you didnt intend it for the use of self defense things just happen you cant ban guns to prevent things from happening you have to make sure people understand and know what the weapon is for and how to use it in a safe matter and try to keep from selling or giving weapons to the wrong person

September 29, 2008 11:48 AM  
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March 19, 2009 12:29 AM  

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