Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Where law ends and resistance begins

Just how susceptible are societies to top-down change, with government using the force of law to impose the preferences of one faction on the unwilling members of another faction? In 2002, an intriguing and underappreciated book was published by Oxford University Press that addressed just that question. Can Gun Control Work?, by James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, purports to address only the practicality of restricting firearms ownership in the United States, but it really applies to all circumstances in which governments try to impose policies disliked by significant percentages of their subject populations.

Jacobs himself sees the wider application of his book's findings. In the introduction, he writes:

Interestingly, many gun control believers are atheists when it comes to government regulation of mood- and mind-altering drugs. They insist that drugs cannot be kept out of the hands of those who want to use them. They point out that after an investment of many billions of dollars, and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of individuals, our three-decade-long drug war has achieved few, if any, positive results. Does the drug war not cast doubt on schemes for gun prohibition or stringent regulation?

Indeed, it does. Advocates of gun control would do well to recognize that the failure of drug prohibition is virtually guaranteed to be replicated in the implementation of firearms regulations. Likewise, supporters of gun rights should realize that their zeal for the right to bear arms is paralleled among devotees of the autonomy of the human body and the right to self-medicate.

But the failure of drug laws is already well-documented -- indeed, it's a main feature in news stories that follow the latest drug busts and the ingenuity of drug smugglers, manufacturers and dealers. Have gun laws experienced similar failures that support Jacobs's point?

You bet.

In recent years, several states and municipalities passed laws mandating the registration of assault rifles. These laws were overwhelmingly ignored. In Boston and Cleveland, the rate of compliance with bans on assault rifles is estimated at 1%. Out of the 100,000 to 300,000 assault rifles estimated to be in private hands in New Jersey, 947 were registered, an additional 888 rendered inoperable, and 4 turned over to the authorities. In California, nearly 90% of the approximately 300,000 assault weapons owners did not register their weapons.

After summarizing the history of restrictions and the inherent weakness of the various proposals for registering firearms, restricting sales, banning some types of weapons and otherwise attempting to choke off private ownership of guns, Jacobs concludes:

If black market activity in connection with the drug laws is any indication, a decades-long "war on handguns" might resemble a low-grade civil war more than a law-enforcement initiative.

Well, that's a pretty definitive prognosis on gun control. And, based as it is on the failure of drug prohibition (and alcohol prohibition before that), it would seem to apply to any similar effort to restrict popular practices, substances and possessions. In fact, it's a lesson that anybody with a passing interest in history could learn fairly easily. At least since the Ottoman Empire's doomed efforts to prohibit the use of tobacco, laws that have suffered any real degree of unpopularity among the people subject to them have sputtered and died -- though often leaving strife, expense and ruined lives in their wake.

People, it seems, are remarkably unresponsive to legislation they dislike, even when the penalties for defiance are draconian (the Ottoman sultan, like the Russian czar, actually imposed the death penalty for smokers).

In a few cases, that may not be terribly important to the authorities. Politicians probably don't care that they get nothing approaching full compliance with taxes so long as they squeeze enough money from their subjects to pay for their pet projects and fill their personal accounts. But most laws are rendered ineffective by widespread defiance; worse, from a government perspective, scofflawry demonstrates the impotence of the state.

That should be enough reason to avoid grandiose legislative gestures. Why reveal the ruling regime as relatively feeble and disdained by much of the populace by passing laws that can't be enforced?

But there seems to be a popular delusion that transforming society is simply a matter of wanting hard enough and cleverly crafting legislation that everybody must follow as if it were a law of nature. As Jacobs puts it in the gun control context, "To a large extent, gun control is something that people believe in. It is embraced in principle without attention to practicalities, implementation and enforcement problems, and cost." Inevitably, the gun controllers, like all totalitarian "reformers," are disappointed when their neighbors prove resistant to social engineering.

I'm not troubled that a series of failed prohibitions and restrictions erodes the legitimacy of the state -- that's a beneficial outcome in my view. But the attempt to enforce those laws inevitably results in people fined, imprisoned and killed before the ultimate ineffectiveness of the policy in question becomes obvious to even the densest lawmakers.

For the sake of our liberty, it's a good thing that people are not anywhere near as malleable as politicians and frenzied advocates of schemes for "improving" society would like. It's just unfortunate that the lesson has to be relearned each generation.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should also be pointed out that when New Jersey passed their assault rifle law, authorities used the mailing list of Soldier of Fortune magazine as probable cause for search warrants to find illegal firearms.

April 22, 2008 4:07 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home