Saturday, June 05, 2010

How Useful Is Gun Control?

I've always been sceptical of the role played by the legality and availability of guns in the overall murder rates. People often compare the British murder rate with the American rate, but the thing to note is that the difference between the two countries was apparent long before the UK had any gun control laws. In fact the high levels of violence in the USA's southern states goes back to before the States was a country.

It also ignores the fact that plenty of countries with restrictive gun control laws have even higher murder rates than the USA, such as Brazil or Russia.

However it seems pretty clear that the one exception to this is with killing sprees by previously law abiding individuals who end up killing themselves at the end of the massacre.

A killing spree differs from regular crime in two key points- the shooter usually commits suicide so isn't deterred by any repercussions of their act and also it is usually done by otherwise law abiding people. The fact that they don't have to worry about consequences means that the usual disincentives for crime don't apply. Because they are otherwise law abiding they would not have access to firearms if they were illegal. This makes killing sprees much more likely if guns are readily available.

This isn't to say that gun laws are the most important factor in massacres or even that we should definitely have tough gun laws (there are some advantages to gun ownership too). However insisting that the availability of guns is somehow irrelevant to gun massacres seems to put ideology over evidence.

17 comments:

JuliaM said...

And if they've no access to guns and a desire to kill a lot of people, a large SUV and a convenient crowd of people (near a bus stop) will get the job done just as effectively...

Ross said...

Well it isn't just as effective though, I'd be amazed if someone managed to rack up a double figure death toll by crashing into a crowd. Plus the suicide part isn't guaranteed to work.

Matthew said...

Also given the UK's tough gun laws, and its no less violent population than the US, wouldn't we expect to have seen about 5-10 massacres-by-car in the last 30 years?

Is there a generally accepted view why these kind of killings have got more prevalent in recent times (UK small sample, but some is more than none, and I think so in the US). Better weapons? Cheaper cars (although Hungerford/Dunblane were just on foot, weren't they?) More angry people?

TDK said...

Also worth mentioning that countries including Switzerland and Finland that have virtually universal gun ownership have far lower levels of gun crime than Britain.

I think Matthew has a point. The prevalence of these events has grown since the 1960s (I think that was the first one in the US). In the UK after WWII guns were very common, including souvenirs of both wars. Yet gun crimes were then infrequent. One is force to agree with Matthew that some other factor dominates.

You may be right that in the case of "killing sprees", gun ownership restrictions can play a preventative role. However, these events are the rarest form of gun crime. I have two questions for you

1. What do you think about Sean Gabbs' claim that wider gun ownership would have meant that other citizens would have been able to take defensive action.
2. Do you think we can ever get to absolute zero ownership? It strike me that we need the police to have access to guns and they too are a risk. So perhaps the standard is zero access amongst at-risk groups?

Anonymous said...

wouldn't we expect to have seen about 5-10 massacres-by-car in the last 30 years?

Not sure that we are as violent as the US. Certainly they have reduced their crime levels but they still remain a murder outlier.

However I struggle to understand your logic. I take JuliaM's comment as suggesting that proxies will be used rather than just SUV's in particular. So the killer will use whatever is to hand, including knife, clubs etc. Even then you have to take account of the efficacy of alternate weapons. An SUV will only get one use - even if it happened nobody might die.

Ross said...

DK- I am only talking about the effect of gun ownership on massacres, not crime in general, so whilst Finland may have lower gun crime overall they have had a number of massacres. As for the two questions:

"What do you think about Sean Gabbs' claim that wider gun ownership would have meant that other citizens would have been able to take defensive action."

Possibly, but ownership would have had to be vastly higher and it would have to be normal to carry concealed weapons in public.

"Do you think we can ever get to absolute zero ownership? "

No, farmers and the like will always need shotguns. Illegal weapons will find their way into the hands of criminals.

Ross said...

Matthew- I don't know what the accepted explanation is, but given that one massacre is often followed by a couple of others in the next month or so, it seems to be behaviour that is imitated. So once the first big killing occurred and received blanket coverage others followed.

In China for example there has been a spate of knife attacks on schools this year.

Ross said...

Anon- I take the point that there are substitutes for guns but they are mostly less efficient, as the knife attacks in China demonstrate.

There are exceptions- the worst school massacre in the USA was done in 1927 by someone who made three bombs and killed 45 people for example.

James Higham said...

Bottom line is we need home defence, to protect our families.

Anonymous said...

"It also ignores the fact that plenty of countries with restrictive gun control laws have even higher murder rates than the USA, such as Brazil or Russia."
How do you know that?
I am not saying you are wrong. I just don't see the evidence

Ross said...

Well I linked to the Wikipedia table of international homicide rates, as for their gun laws see here for Brazil:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_politics_in_Brazil

For Russia see here:
http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20050811/41139012.html

Randy said...

I was thinking about the copycat killings. Ross posted: "So once the first big killing occurred and received blanket coverage others followed."
Following that logic then we can blame the copycat killings on the media. Let’s just outlaw media coverage anywhere but locally...that way the local law enforcement can publish what they need to in order to catch or pursue a suspect but 'Ted' wouldn't become infamous.

Randy said...

Wait, that would be treading on their 'First Amendment Rights' wouldn't it...let's see, tread on our Second Amendment Rights or tread on our First Amendment Rights. I don't like ether of those options can we think of a third?

Ross said...

Randy- the media do need to be more responsible in their coverage, see this for example:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8rMYyegT5Y

teacher.paris said...

Countries where freemen are armed do not hsve succesful killing sprees because the freemen who are armed shoot down the shooter. American shooting sprees rack lsrge totals of victims because the shooters select gun-free zones, gun-free communities and gun-free states. Countries that lack freemen because they are dsarmed deserve the massacres they receive. Where I live guns are freely available at the souk on Friday. Number of violent crimes is almost zero. Suicidal spree killer don't seem to have much success is Switzerland or Germany either.

Anonymous said...

The question is "how useful is gun control"?

Part of the answer is to ask what the aim of gun control is.
Is it to disarm the people and make them more compliant?
Is it to protect the people from each other or merely to protect the Upper classes or political leaders.

Personally, whilst I would not own a gun nor purchase one, I cannot see any reason for not allowing people to own them.

No amount of crying or bleating about massacres, no amount of wringing of politicians hands will alter the fact there are some really bad people out there.

But taking away property rights is not the way to go, removing anyones rights diminishes the rights of everyone.

Ross said...

Anon- that is a good point, I suppose I'm talking about effectiveness in reducing murders.