Monday, December 22, 2008

Beware of well-armed Europeans

The Times of London recently carried an interesting report about the public response to a violent terrorist attack.

[T]wo such anarchists, lately come from an attempt to blow up the president of France, tried to commit a robbery in north London, armed with automatic pistols. ... Londoners, however, shot back – and the anarchists were pursued through the streets by a spontaneous hue-and-cry. The police, who could not find the key to their own gun cupboard, borrowed at least four pistols from passers-by, while other citizens armed with revolvers and shotguns preferred to use their weapons themselves to bring the assailants down.

If you're scratching your head, that's because the newspaper description is of an incident in 1909. At the time, the UK had no restrictions on private firearms ownership to speak of. People owned guns and carried them in public.

If you wonder what the crime rate was like with all of those well-armed Brits wandering around ... Well, there were about 9.6 murders per million people (PDF) in 1900. That dipped over the years, to a low of 6.2 per million in 1960 -- and then rose to over 14 per million by the end of the 20th century.

The strict gun control laws that we associate with Britain today really began with the red scares of World War I and were implemented thereafter, with handguns finally banned in 1997. So the murder rate seemed to first dip and then soar even as gun laws grew ever-tougher.

Which isn't supposed to be how it works in disarmed Europe, is it?

Well, European countries certainly have lower -- often, much lower -- murder rates than the U.S., but we tend to exaggerate their disarmed status. That's because most mainstream media comparisons of gun ownership dwell on official figures. How many guns Americans legally own vs. how many Germans legally own. That makes sense to American eyes, because most guns here are perfectly legal. That's exactly what gets gun control advocates so hot and bothered when they start crunching numbers. They want guns further restricted and made less common.

But less common isn't always what you get. Those official gun ownership numbers actually compare apples and oranges. That's because Europeans own an awful lot of guns outside the law. As of 2003, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (PDF), "Contrary to widely-accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace in most European states." The survey adds, "public officials readily admit that unlicensed owners and unregistered guns greatly outnumber legal ones."

Even the 2003 figures may understate how unofficially well-armed European scofflaws are. The Small Arms Survey reported 350,000 unregistered guns in Greece in 2003. Two years later, the Greek government upped that figure -- to 1.5 million.

In countries with relatively loose gun laws -- like Finland -- most guns are legally held, as in the U.S. In countries with restrictive laws, like Germany, most guns are held illegally. Either way, people who want to own guns seem to go ahead and do so, no matter what the authorities want.

The result, in countries with tough laws, like the UK, is that you might have more than twice as many firearms owned in the shadows as out in the open. In France, more than five times as many guns are held illegally as legally.

So, Europeans are not so disarmed.

Why does this matter?

Well, if your population turns to supporting black markets, the logic of those illicit markets prevails. Once the mechanisms for satisfying demand move beyond the reach of the law, they acknowledge few limits. Again, from the Small Arms Survey 2003:

European criminals appear to be switching to heavier armaments. Instead of less capable revolvers, they increasingly have fully automatic pistols. Instead of hunting weapons, police are more commonly recovering sub-machine guns. Even larger weapons appear irregularly, illustrated when British police seized heavy machine guns and a mortar in March 2001.

With that booming underground market in place, you didn't think criminals were going to confine themselves to a few pocket pistols, did you?

And as illegally well-armed as many Europeans are, they're just not in a position to use those weapons against the armed bad guys the way the Londoners of 1909 were. Carrying a pistol in Edwardian times was a right, and chasing down a criminal was a civic duty. Doing the same these days carries a long prison sentence. The modern German gun owner may well use an illegal pistol to defend himself against a murderer -- after all, arrest is better than death. But he has good reason to resist the good samaritan urge to race around the corner to assist a stranger.

So Europeans still own their guns and they may even carry them, but they reserve their use for rare circumstances.

That Times description of a 1909 "hue and cry" was written by Richard Munday, a British firearms scholar who contrasted the century-old incident with the helplessness of Mumbai residents during the recent terrorist attack. India has suffered under strict gun control laws since the 19th century, leading Gandhi to lament, "Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”

In India, as elsewhere, people probably own a relatively large number of guns beyond the approval of the law. But under threat of prosecution and imprisonment, armed Mumbai residents certainly stayed at home to defend their families, leaving strangers to fend for themselves against the terrorists who openly used their illegal guns.

That's the end result of unenforceable laws for you. You get all the downside of whatever it is you're trying to restrict, but none of the benefits.



Blogger Johnny said...

As ever, the devil is in the details. An additional point worth looking into is the methods of recording of crime stats. Even the difference between England and Scotland is stark - according to official figures, Scotland in a typical year has twice the homicide rate of England and Wales. However, the gun laws are dictated by the Westminster Parliament for all three countries. A proportion of the difference is due to centuries-old differences in Scots and English law as to how to deal with the fact of a death. The difference between the FBI Uniform Crime Stats and the junk the UK Home Office comes up with is stark. Recently the Home Office was publicly castigated by a high-ranking civil servant for particularly egregious `fixing' of statistics relating to knife crime which threatens to undermine public and academic confidence the veracity of all UK Government data and statistics.

December 23, 2008 1:31 AM  

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