On Gun Control

Gun control is one of many public policies that sounds great at first, but fails on closer inspection (and often in practice). The theory is simple: if the government controls private citizens’ access to firearms (and, in general, other weapons such as hunting knives) then crimes involving firearms will be reduced and a safer society will result. Obviously, it makes sense for the government to deny access to firearms for certain private citizens (e.g. violent criminals, who have already shown a propensity to commit violence and thus cannot be trusted with firearms) and deny all private citizens access to certain firearms (e.g. certain military-grade firearms, which are unnecessarily powerful for a private citizen’s self defense). However, gun control can easily become overly restrictive to the point that it creates a more dangerous society.

First, consider gun control from an abstract point of view. One can divide all private citizens into two groups: those who are willing to commit violent crimes (call this group V for violent) and those who are not (call this group N for nonviolent). Gun control targets group V since providing members of this group with firearms can make any violent crime they commit more deadly. Denying members of the second group access to firearms is unnecessary since members of this group will not commit violent crimes — whether they have access to firearms or not — by definition. Let us now divide all private citizens into two different groups: those who are willing to disobey gun control laws (call this group C for criminals) and those who are not (call this group L for lawful). Every private citizen is either a member of V or N, and every private citizen is also a member of C or L. Ideally, every private citizen is a member of N and L (call this subgroup NL). However, there will inevitably be some members of the worst combination (V and C, or subgroup VC), which gun control can only hinder by making it more difficult for them to acquire firearms. Gun control is effective on but functionally unnecessary for members of subgroup NC (these citizens may illegally acquire firearms, but are unwilling to use them to commit violent crimes and thus pose minimal danger). Virtually no one is a member of subgroup VL (who is willing to commit a far more serious violent crime but is unwilling to illegally obtain a firearm?) so gun control (or lack thereof) makes no difference in this case. One can therefore focus only on members of VC versus members of NL.

Without any gun control the distinction between groups C and L disappears, so that all citizens are simply either in V or N. In this situation, members of N are free to arm themselves for self defense against members of V. Now add gun control: members of NL are either completely disarmed (if the gun control laws deny them access to all firearms, or if the process of legally obtaining a firearm is too much of a hassle) or are only armed with legal firearms (which may be less effective against more powerful, illegally obtained firearms), whereas members of VC are only hindered in their ability to obtain firearms. If this hindrance was completely effective so that all members of VC are disarmed as well as members of NL then gun control would work.

However, this hindrance is clearly ineffective as evidenced by massacres occurring in “gun-free zones” like schools or in places with very strict gun control laws. These massacres include the Columbine High School massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, and the attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. In all cases, gun control laws (not to mention felonies like murder) were violated — the Columbine High School perpetrators were too young to buy weapons and were not permitted to bring them on campus, Virginia Tech banned people — even with concealed carry permits — from bringing guns on campus, and Norway has strict gun control laws (for example, firearms can only be obtained for certain reasons like hunting and not simply for self-defense, and Norwegians cannot carry concealed firearms). The failure of gun control laws in these cases is likely not limited to a simple failure to prevent the perpetrators (members of VC) from obtaining firearms, since the gun control laws additionally prevented the victims (members of NL) from potentially obtaining their own firearms to defend themselves. These victims number 13 dead (not including the two perpetrators) and 24 injured at Columbine, 32 dead (not including the perpetrator) and 25 injured at Virginia Tech, and 69 dead and 66 injured at Utøya, Norway (where Anders Breivik used his firearms, rather than his bomb in Oslo, to kill his victims). It’s unlikely many of the victims at Columbine would have been able to arm themselves anyway (since most of the victims were underage), but imagine if any of the victims or bystanders at Virginia Tech or Norway had been permitted to carry firearms and were armed. Several Virginia Tech victims died trying to barricade doors to prevent the shooter from entering classrooms, yet if any had been armed they could have shot back until police arrived. The police didn’t stop the Virginia Tech shooter, either — he killed himself. The police did manage to arrest the Norway shooter, but not until nearly ninety minutes after Breivik started shooting. During that ninety minute interval before the police arrived and Breivik was able to attack freely, a number of vacationers rescued dozens of people under attack and many people tried to hide from Breivik until the police arrived. But if just one of those rescuers or one of the people hiding had been armed with a gun to subdue or kill Breivik, how much more quickly could the attack have been ended and how many more lives would have been saved?

Armed citizens using their firearms in self-defense have stopped many violent crimes — everything from armed robbery to attempted massacres. Firearms allow physically weaker individuals to defend themselves against physically stronger and/or armed violent criminals, as was the case when a 69 year old woman shot and injured an 18 year old home invader. They allow law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from crime, as a pizza delivery driver did when he shot and killed two convicted felons who were attempting to rob him (after he had been robbed twice before). More directly related to the Virginia Tech massacre, two law school students stopped a shooting spree by retrieving their firearms from their cars and subduing the perpetrator (notice, however, that the CNN report on this crime makes no mention of the fact that the perpetrator was subdued with the help of firearms).

It is clear, therefore, that gun control cannot possibly protect members of NL from members of VC (since the latter cannot be completely hindered from obtaining firearms) and should not prevent members of NL from arming themselves for self-defense and to protect themselves from members of VC. The solution is to have minimal gun control laws that prevent members of VC from easily obtaining firearms while allowing members of NL to easily obtain their own firearms and carry them concealed (so that a member of VC engaging in a violent crime cannot easily identify and simply kill the armed members of NL first). One might object to the higher number of firearms that would almost certainly be carried under minimal gun control laws than under stricter laws, but one must remember that most of the additional firearms would be carried by members of NL. These individuals, by definition, will not engage in violent crime with their weapons. The only time their weapons will be used against humans will be in response to a violent crime under commission by a member of VC. In fact, it is beneficial for these members of NL (and even NC) to be able to carry their own firearms, as this acts as a deterrent against violent crime — members of VC must consider the risk that they will be shot by their potential victims when they attempt to commit a crime and may decide not to commit the violent crime after all. And if they decide to commit a violent crime after all, they are more likely to be stopped by armed members of NL.

A reasonable framework of gun control laws, therefore, would be:

  1. Convicted felons, minors, and mentally unstable persons are forbidden from purchasing and owning a firearm. The government should provide a database of felons and mentally unstable persons for gun stores to check that potential buyers may legally purchase a firearm.
  2. All private citizens are forbidden from owning weapons which have no use for self-defense (e.g. rocket launchers, explosive mines, etc.). All weapons which can be used for self-defense may be owned by anyone except those listed in (1). Since the job of a police force is to protect private citizens, any weapons available to the police are available to private citizens.
  3. Any weapon except those listed in (2) may be owned by any private citizen except those listed in (1) whether for self-defense, hunting, etc.
  4. Legal weapons owned by a private citizen may be carried concealed, without a special permit for doing so.
  5. The government shall not deny private citizens the ability to carry legal weapons on government premises, except where armed guards are present on site to provide protection. If the government chooses not to protect private citizens on government property, then private citizens must be able to protect themselves.

Additional gun control laws dealing with more specific situations would likely be necessary, but the above set provides a baseline for reasonable gun control laws. Unreasonable and illogical gun control laws which should not be implemented include:

  • Restrictions on weapon caliber, magazine size, etc.
  • “Gun-free zones” in areas that do not have an armed security presence. For buildings where private citizens are not permitted to carry personal firearms, armed security must be present in the building at all times (a university campus police force, for example, is insufficient security for an entire campus, unless officers are posted in every campus building).
  • Restrictions on one’s ability to carry a concealed firearm.
  • Restricting one’s ability to carry a firearm outside the home.
  • Restrictions on the number of firearms one person may own.

Again, the above is not an exhaustive list but rather provides some examples of illogical laws.

Gun control cannot possibly eliminate access to firearms for violent individuals, so the purpose of gun control should be to reduce access to firearms for violent individuals while simultaneously providing access to firearms for non-violent individuals to protect themselves. Attempts to eliminate access for violent individuals are doomed to failure, and will only doom the non-violent individuals who are stripped of their ability to defend themselves.

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21 thoughts on “On Gun Control

  1. I’m not sure giving every one a firearm is wise. Sure, it’s an American right, but a lot of people aren’t responsible enough to carry them. See below:
    http://stuphblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/30/836/

    That guy was deemed competent to carry his fire arm with a conceal license, but was still doing stupid stuff with his gun. I understand you logic, but too many people would be tempted to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

    • I didn’t say we should “give” everyone a firearm. You still need to receive training on how to use them and then purchase them. A lot of people choose not to carry them even when they can (presumably most advocates of strict gun control, for example).

      Yes, people do stupid things and I agree that guns and alcohol don’t seem to mix. On the other hand, it is counterintuitive but apparently gun crimes went down in Virginia the first year after a law was passed to allow patrons with permits to carry concealed weapons into bars (http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/news/2011/aug/14/tdmain01-gun-crime-drops-at-virginia-bars-and-rest-ar-1237278/). Maybe everyone at the bar is afraid of being belligerent and getting shot by some other armed drunk? I’m not sure what the answer is on this particular issue, but this is a rather small part of the gun control debate in general (the bar owner can forbid patrons from carrying their weapons inside if he chooses, in any case, and you can avoid bars that allow them). Just because some people do stupid things and can’t handle a firearm doesn’t justify taking firearms away from everyone else. Violent criminals will still get their hands on them.

      Incidentally, Wintery Knight posted some information about gun control (http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/do-gun-control-laws-cause-crime-rates-to-go-down/) just a few hours after I posted mine. He cites the same Virginia law as well as other sources.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • That guy DID receive training. You have to have that to get a conceal license. That is just one small example of how the temptation can overcome common sense.

        I myself would feel very uncomfortable knowing I was surround by people who were concealing weapons, even if I had one myself. It’s kind of like the nuclear weapon predicament. Once one person fires, so will everyone else.

        I don’t begrudge people that want to carry and I understand that they have the right to defend themselves, but I think our time would be better spent cracking down on illegal weapons than training the mass public how to handle firearms and giving them pistols.

        Also, as nice as it would be if it were true, I doubt that all people fall neatly into the 4 categories you cite. What people are capable of depends greatly on the circumstances they are in. I’m sure everyone you know has sworn at one time or another that they would NEVER do a particular thing that they ended up doing later because their circumstances changed. So I guess using that logic everyone would fit into your categories, they would just change categories.

        Just another complex issue this country must somehow overcome.

        • My point about training is that I’m not advocating “giving” out firearms like candy so that everyone has their own gun even if they don’t know how to use it. I’m also not saying that the government has a responsibility to train the mass public — individuals who wish to carry a firearm must acquire training (either from a government certified private instructor or the government itself). The government simply must not deny such individuals who are qualified (have training, aren’t convicted felons or minors, etc.) the ability to purchase and carry a firearm. I absolutely agree that the government’s job with respect to guns is to enforce the law (i.e. remove illegal or illegally obtained firearms) rather than train people to carry firearms.

          The problem you are concerned with is the fact that we can’t know whether someone is a member of VC or NL at the time that they acquire a firearm (otherwise law enforcement would be much easier). But this is a problem whether gun control laws are strict or not. The massacre examples I gave demonstrate that gun control laws — even strict ones — can and will be violated, so we cannot rely on them to protect us.

          On a related note, everyone does fall into one of the four groups I cited. This is true because it is logically impossible to belong to another group based on how I defined the groups. Either someone is willing to commit a violent crime or someone is not. There is no third option. Likewise, either someone is willing to illegally obtain a firearm or someone is not. This is independent of circumstances. If someone swears to be unwilling to commit a violent crime but does so when the circumstances change, then they are — and always have been — a member of VC since it turned out they really were willing to commit a violent crime given the right circumstances. People don’t change categories, though our perception of them might (we may think someone is a member of NL but change our perception when they commit a violent crime).

          Regarding the guns and alcohol problem, there’s not much difference between allowing that idiot in your example to go to a bar with a concealed firearm (as long as he doesn’t drink) as allowing him to go to a bar and drive his car (as long as he doesn’t drink). Cars and guns don’t mix either (drunk drivers certainly kill plenty of innocent people) but that’s not a good reason to ban cars just because some idiot might drive drunk. I agree that people do stupid things, but they’ll do that (and break the law) even if you ban guns (or cars).

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  3. Makes sense to me.

    If people are concerned that gun owners (particularly those carrying concealed?) will “be tempted to do things they wouldn’t normally do”, arguably it makes sense to try to measure the net effects empirically—when, say, concealed carry is legal, are more lives saved by preventing crimes than lives lost to accidents, armed road rage, and other bad effects? If so, on this utilitarian calculus, concealed carry should be legal.

    John Lott published More Guns, Less Crime in the 1990s, the title of which summarizes the conclusion of his empirical research, which used data from every county in the United States. A writer at The American Spectator concludes that the academic debate on the empirical evidence overall is inconclusive (though more in favor of John Lott than not, on my reading), but he also notes that for the narrower question of whether permit holders in states that allow concealed carry by permit abuse the privilege and use their guns to commit crimes, the answer is pretty clearly No.

    In any case, as he notes elsewhere, even if we have totally inconclusive empirical evidence, “this does not mean that gun control is harmless or irrelevant. Rather, it means that gun control restricts liberty without having any discernible effect on security. Anyone who thinks that’s a good deal truly deserves neither.”

    Null said, “Since the job of a police force is to protect private citizens, any weapons available to the police are available to private citizens.”

    That makes sense; such a rule could be good structurally, in that the police (as voters and as lobby groups) would then tend to keep gun control from becoming too restrictive. Dave Kopel called it the “Goose and Gander Amendment”.

    • Thank you for a very informative comment, Chillingworth!

      I was aware of John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime but declined to cite it on account of the fact that it is controversial. Nonetheless, it is useful information.

      That’s a great point regarding inconclusive evidence favoring less gun control. I hadn’t thought of that before.

      I did think of the “Goose and Gander Amendment” argument on my own, but was unaware that Dave Kopel had already come up with it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      • Right, if academics have argued about More Guns, Less Crime for more than a decade and still haven’t reached anything like consensus on whether its conclusion was correct, I agree that it made sense for you not to mention it. I guess I mentioned it anyway in case Twindaddy hadn’t heard of it.

        As to you and Dave Kopel, great minds think alike? If different people are coming to the same conclusion independently, it must be right!

  4. On a related note, everyone does fall into one of the four groups I cited……

    Um, read my comment again. I never said that they didn’t. What I said was that some people might change categories based on their circumstances. For instance, I have never in my life violently attacked anyone. However, I imagine if someone were to intentionally hurt one of my children that would change. If my rage was such, and I had a conceal carry, I might use that gun for something I’d never imagined myself doing. That doesn’t make me a violent criminal. That’s a typical emotional response when a loved one is harmed.

    Basically what I’m saying is that nothing is ever absolute. There are always shades of gray.

    • Well, I think your comment that not everyone “falls neatly” into the four groups is ambiguous. It can be interpreted to mean that some people don’t fall into one of the four groups at all.

      I understand what you are saying, but as I have defined the groups a VC is anyone who is willing to commit a violent crime (even if only under specific circumstances). If you are willing to commit a violent crime while enraged rather than seek legal recourse for a crime committed against a loved one then, as I have defined the groups, you are a VC even if you haven’t committed a violent crime yet. I think this definition makes more sense since the goal of gun control should be to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals with a violent criminal past as well as those who are willing but have not yet committed a violent crime (this is an impossible goal, of course). For example, Breivik was apparently a VC despite his clean criminal record prior to his attacks in Norway. He is now also a violent criminal after his attacks. In short, VC != violent criminal.

  5. Could there be a subgroup CN? That is, people willing to ignore (break) gun control laws, but not willing to commit violent acts with said weapons?

    This group is larger than you think. There are lots of gun collectors out there who would be happy to ignore certain state or federal gun control laws that they consider excessive or absurd (by definition this makes them “criminals,” but more in the sense that you’re a “criminal” if you run a stop sign). But many members of this same group aren’t violent people or predisposed to violent acts. Think, for example, of some guy who would purchase an M2 50 caliber machine gun if he found one and thought he could get away with it…but all he wants to do with it is shoot holes in some old junk cars lying at the back edge of his property. Or another guy who’d love to lay hands on a fully-automatic AK-47, but the only thing he ever intends to shoot with it are tree stumps and beer cans. You get the idea.

    I just thought I’d mention this as food for thought. It also lends support to the idea that mere possession of firearms doesn’t by itself make someone dangerous or violent – what it does do is increase the lethality of some *already* predisposed to such acts.

    My position is that gun control shouldn’t exist at the federal level, but entirely at the state levels. From what I’ve gathered, most laws DO exist at the state level, but I’d like to see this made the case entirely. On the other hand, the SCOTUS just ruled (McDonald vs Chicago) that the 2nd Amendment does apply to the states as well as the federal government, so it’s not to say that the 50 state governments have a free hand to do whatever they like to their citizens’ gun rights.

    My state has certainly tried to legislate ours away, piece by piece, and has already been spanked in court a number of times over this.

    • Hi Cylar! Thanks for your comments.

      There is a group CN (I called them NC in my post, but it’s the same group). I referred to them once in my post:

      “Gun control is effective on but functionally unnecessary for members of subgroup NC (these citizens may illegally acquire firearms, but are unwilling to use them to commit violent crimes and thus pose minimal danger).”

      For brevity, I did not refer to them in the rest of my post since they are non-violent and gun control does not need to target them. I implicitly considered them on the same side as NL.

      Interestingly, if gun control laws are less strict, then fewer members of NC will exist since there will be fewer gun control laws for them to break anyway! They’ll be members of NL.

  6. Convicted felons, minors, and mentally unstable persons are forbidden from purchasing and owning a firearm. The government should provide a database of felons and mentally unstable persons for gun stores to check that potential buyers may legally purchase a firearm.

    We have that already. It’s called the National Instant Check System (NICS).

    All private citizens are forbidden from owning weapons which have no use for self-defense (e.g. rocket launchers, explosive mines, etc.). All weapons which can be used for self-defense may be owned by anyone except those listed in (1). Since the job of a police force is to protect private citizens, any weapons available to the police are available to private citizens.

    Pretty much covered under the Gun Control Acts of 1934 and 1968.

    Any weapon except those listed in (2) may be owned by any private citizen except those listed in (1) whether for self-defense, hunting, etc.

    We’re pretty much there already.

    Legal weapons owned by a private citizen may be carried concealed, without a special permit for doing so.

    About five states have already adopted this idea. About 37 more do require the permit. One (IL) does not issue CCW at all. The rest are “may issue” which allow local LEO’s to deny permit w/o cause.

    The government shall not deny private citizens the ability to carry legal weapons on government premises, except where armed guards are present on site to provide protection. If the government chooses not to protect private citizens on government property, then private citizens must be able to protect themselves.

    Quite right. The RKBA is meaningless unless it applies everywhere, all the time. I have no understanding for the exceptions made for government buildings or state parks or anywhere else under government ownership. Either we trust citizens to behave responsibly or we do not.

    I also have a problem with the idea that it is possible to revoke someone’s right of self-defense, often for the most trivial of reasons or whatever the government has arbitrarily decided is serious enough to warrant felony charges. Someone on another forum recently made the point that if you’re walking around a free man, the government has no right to do this; if you’re so dangerous that you can’t be trusted with a gun, you should still be in jail.

    • All good points. I’m aware that many of these laws already exist. My list is meant to be a basic framework for what gun control laws should be. For the purposes of the list, I was essentially assuming no gun control laws existed so that I could list a set of good laws to implement.

  7. “Gun control cannot possibly eliminate access to firearms for violent individuals, so the purpose of gun control should be to reduce access to firearms for violent individuals while simultaneously providing access to firearms for non-violent individuals to protect themselves. ”

    Hasn’t the Left been telling us for years that it is pointless to continue fighting the War on Drugs, because people are going to have them/ use them no matter what the law says or what LEO’s try to do about the problem?

    I find that many of the same arguments that are used in favor of legalizing some illicit substance also work well for firearms.

    • Sure, or the left tells us that we have to keep abortion legal, because people who want one will get one no matter what the law says; so the most the law can do is determine whether women will be getting those abortions in a clean, legal clinic, or with a coat hanger in an alley. But of course there’s no way that increasing taxes will increase the incentive to come up with creative ways to avoid paying taxes.

  8. I live on the border in AZ and my comment is emotional rather than the learned legalities of this discussion. My partner and I have CCWs and are armed at all times. If you even answer your door without a weapon within reach then you do so at your own risk. In July a 76-year-old man in a nearby town was killed by having his throat slashed after he answered his door, then the 17-year-old killer repeatedly raped the man’s 72-year-old wife. We were carrying long before this, but any week’s worth of news at any time here includes violent crimes against innocent people. In my neighborhood we have drug cartel members harassing us to use our property for drug drop off points, and illegals entering through the desert behind our house every day. I absolutely cannot imagine being unarmed or unobservant.

    We reload our own ammunition and practice frequently. We think it’s shocking that AZ did away with mandatory CCW permits. The classes educate you in safety and law that I imagine many people carrying here are ignorant of. Regardless, I didn’t ask for this lifestyle, it was forced on me. We live with dogs, locks, fencing, gates, and guns. If by some sort of insanity the government were to deny us our right to defend ourselves, they wouldn’t get our guns down here. We are not vigilantes, we’re just not stupid.

    • Your input is a good example of theory put into application. It’s so unfortunate you have to be put into that situation, though.

      My parents live in Texas on the border with Mexico and I have family in Arizona so I’ve heard of the problems with illegal aliens and the drug cartels down there. Stay safe!

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