The sad truth about gun control — it’s irrelevant

Posted on July 27, 2012

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Recently an online friend, superb writer, and Colorado resident wrote a heartfelt piece about the Aurora theatre massacre (“America Is At Civil War And Returning To The Wild, Wild West Isn’t The Solution“). In it he, quite naturally, examines the case for more gun control. Rather than hijacking his comment thread, I’ve elected to post my response here. (It also may prove a boost to getting me back into the habit of writing again rather than wallowing in a deep depression while engaging in a daily routine of desperate job searching in order to find work that is not only steadier than that of education, but also saner.)

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America unquestionably has a problem with guns, but while I’d love to see every gun outside of a shooting range melted down in a furnace (probably not a good idea for the ammunition), gun laws really don’t seem to be the answer.

Of the many misstatements made by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine, one of the strangest is when he claims that Canadians own as many guns as Americans. Or as he puts it: “Canada was one gun-loving, gun-toting, gun-crazy country!” Well, a quick check with the actual statistics (something Mr. Moore apparently disdains in favour of man-on-the-street anecdotes) shows that while there are 88.8 guns for every 100 Americans, there are only 30.8 guns for every 100 Canadians. So, uh — no. We simply don’t own as many guns as Americans (Source: “Small Arms Survey 2007, Chapter 2, Annexe 4).

Based upon his mistaken impression that Americans and Canadians share an equal love of guns, Mr. Moore then concludes that the reason America has such a problem with gun crime is due to its “gun culture.” I’ve argued in the past that this isn’t true. America doesn’t have a gun culture — it has a culture with guns. A true “gun culture” would be culture in which guns are an inherent part of the culture, with children being taught to handle them from an early age, and in which the simple possession of a gun imparts little or no “cool” or rebellious factor.

What I am about to say is not a popular argument (and many people who use it do so only as an excuse to indulge in irresponsible gun ownership), but guns are not the problem; people are the problem.

Despite the prevalence of guns, Americans have a schizophrenic combination of horror and fascination with them. As a result, owning and using a gun becomes a powerful symbol of strength combined with an anti-societal rebellion, and society’s response to their use is to ban them altogether.

But if there is one thing we should have learned through thousands of years of history, it’s that prohibition simply doesn’t work. It didn’t work with tea, opium, marijuana, alcohol, prostitution, books, heroin, or any other substance (or idea) on which it’s been tried.

You are forbidden from having impure thoughts at this moment.

The same is true with the problem of teenage pregnancy. On one side we have those who would preach absolute abstinence. The results of such a practice are an abysmal failure, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing with their attempts. More successful is a combination of education with an acceptance of sex as part of the cultural fabric. It doesn’t stop all teen pregnancy, but nothing will.

America is not going to give up its guns, and any attempts in that direction only result in animosity and gun hoarding. Every time there is a mass shooting the sales of guns increases (as it has again following the Aurora incident). And while some of this increase is due to people buying guns for protection, the owners of gun shops report that much of it is fear of new gun control laws coming into effect. (See for example, “Colorado Gun Sales Surge After the Aurora Massacre, Bloomberg Business Week; “Why gun sales spike after mass shootings: It’s not what you might think,”  Christian Science Monitor; “U.S. gun sales surge after Colorado theatre massacre: Buyers fear stricter gun control legislation,” Associated Press in CBC News.)

Consider, for instance, the years between 1975 to 2005. During this time the government was busy enacting numerous gun control laws:

  • an anti-handgun law in D.C. (1977)
  • increased penalties for illegal possession of firearms (1986)
  • a ban of semiautomatic weapons in California (1989)
  • a ban on manufacturing and importing semiautomatic assault weapons in the United States along with “gun-free school zones” established with strong penalties for violators (1990)
  • the Brady Handgun Act (1994)
  • law suits in LA against gun makers (1998)
  • and many more.

So what was the result? Here is a chart from the U.S. Justice Department showing the course of weapons crimes over the this same period:

As can plainly be seen, gun laws had virtually no effect. There is a sharp increase of gun crimes which peaked 1993 to a new high followed by a steady drop — although they have not returned even to the 1983 level, much less that of 1975. (Also of interest is the fact that homicides by all other methods, including guns other than handguns, have remained stable, or even declined.)

Extending the timeline shows a strange and inexplicable ebb and flow.

Bureau of Justice Statistics: Homicide rates from 1900 to 2006. Data table available here.

This chart from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a homicide rate of 1.2 per 100,000 in 1900, increasing rapidly from 1905 to a high of 9.7 in 1933. As the Depression wears on, however, the homicide rate virtually plummets until it reaches a rate of about 4.5 during the mid-fifties. Starting in the mid-sixties, however, the rate makes a sudden jump again peaking at 10.7 in 1980, but averaging around 8 or so throughout the seventies and eighties, and up to the mid-nineties.

At this point, however, the rate suddenly drops again, and since then we’ve averaged about 6.2.

So what does this tell us? One obvious conclusion is that gun control is essentially irrelevant. Murder by gunfire rose or fell according to dictates completely removed from any and all regulations enacted. Could the cause be poverty? Was there a sudden rise in poverty in 1905 or 1967? Not that I know of, yet the rate goes up dramatically at both points. And certainly there was no decrease in poverty during the thirties, when the rate suddenly plunged. Is it a matter of social injustice? Surely even the most hard-core liberals among us must acknowledge that society is more just now, with a murder rate around 6.2, than it was at the end of the 19th century, with a murder rate of 1.2.

Sex, drugs, alcohol, guns — prohibition and bans haven’t worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe they’re going to suddenly start working in the future. What’s needed is a more nuanced solution — and therefore, a far more difficult one.

Why, for instance, do events such as the Aurora shooting seem to act like epidemics? One day someone takes it into his head to shoot a batch of people, an event almost unprecedented. A little while later, someone else does the same thing. And then another. And within a few years we’ve come to regard such incidents as a part of modern society. What changed? Certainly it has nothing to do with gun laws, and it can’t be attributed to inequalities in society, since both the gun laws and inequalities were essentially the same in the years preceding the events.

So what’s the answer? I honestly have no idea. I only know that gun control isn’t it. I wish I knew more, but I don’t.

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