Enza Ferreri returns with a European perspective on the current gun control debate in the United States.
Massacres, Gun Control Studies and Social Change
by Enza Ferreri
I have closely followed the gun control debate in the US from the outside and, as a European, I am trying to make sense of it because I know that at stake is not just the gun legislation but also the American Constitution, with what it represents as the most historically important declaration of human rights and liberties to be safeguarded against the power of the state; the thorny issues of broken families and of how to treat the mentally ill; and even the always controversial question of race and gang violence.
I have never seen a gun in my life except on TV and in movies. I grew up in a very gun-averse environment in Northern Italy. Almost everyone, including people on the political centre-right like my family, believed that ordinary citizens should not have guns and that America needed to have tighter gun control laws.
This is more or less what I thought, too, until I began realizing how anti-freedom and despotic our Western governments actually are, something I had not realized before. That, for a start, made me take a better look at the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Here is a classic emotion-versus-reason conflict. Many of us have an instinctive revulsion against weapons, so we think the less the better, but on closer inspection things may be different.
When something traumatic like the Newtown massacre happens, the normal human reaction is to find means of control so that we feel reassured that it won’t happen again. In some ways this need for control is not dissimilar to the rituals and compulsions performed by an OCD sufferer, which don’t have to be based on reality and reason as long as they have the power to assuage the anxiety.
I think that something like this on a collective scale is happening in America now.
The idea that fewer controls on guns lead to more guns and more guns lead to more murders, multiple or not, is not so much simple as simplistic. Simple is what addresses the problem, simplistic is what avoids it.
The reason why I am saying this is that, despite the immediate intuitive nature (along with wishful thinking) of the thesis that more gun control reduces violent crime, there is absolutely no evidence to support it.
And not for lack of trying to find it.
One of the 23 “executive actions” initiated by President Obama is a Presidential Memorandum directing the Department of Health through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies to “conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it”.
Something similar had already been done by one of Obama’s predecessors at the White House, Jimmy Carter. Wanting to build the case for new comprehensive federal gun-control legislation, in 1978 the Carter administration commissioned a large-scale scientific study which, they presumed, would conclude that gun-control laws reduce crime.
Carter gave a substantial research grant to University of Massachusetts professor of sociology James D. Wright and his colleagues Peter Rossi and Kathleen Daly, all highly regarded sociologists. Professor Wright was on record as strongly in favour of much stricter gun controls. This was the most comprehensive study of gun control that had ever been undertaken, which resulted in a massive three-volume work, Under the Gun.
David Kopel, Research Director of the Independence Institute and co-author of the law school textbook Firearms Law and the Second Amendment, explains:
Wright and his colleagues were asked to survey the state of research regarding the efficacy of gun control, presumably to show that gun control worked and that America needed more of it. But when the researchers produced their report for the National Institute of Justice in 1982, they delivered a document quite different from the one they had expected to write. Carefully reviewing all existing research, the three scholars found no persuasive scholarly evidence that America’s 20,000 gun-control laws had reduced criminal violence. For example, the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned most interstate gun sales, had no discernible impact on the criminal acquisition of guns from other states. Washington, D.C.’s ban on the ownership of handguns that had not already been registered in the District was not linked to any reduction in gun crime. Even Detroit’s law providing mandatory sentences for felonies committed with a gun was found to have no effect on gun-crime patterns, in part because judges would often reduce the sentence for the underlying offense in order to balance out the mandatory two-year extra sentence for use of a gun.
Professor Wright summarized the research’s conclusions thus: “Gun control laws do not reduce crime.” Kopel said: “As the scholars frankly admitted, they had started out their research as gun-control advocates, and had been forced to change their minds by a careful review of the evidence.”
Another milestone of research on the subject was a 2003 study evaluating the effect of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a federal 10-year ban law enacted in 1994 and expiring in 2004 on so-called “assault” weapons — the same ones for which a ban is called for now by gun-control advocates — carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence”.
The National Research Council’s 2004 Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review reviewed over 200 journal articles, 99 books and 43 government publications assessing the impact of 80 gun-control measures. It was unable to find empirical evidence that restrictive firearm laws and regulations decreased violent crime, suicide, or accidents. It observed that academic studies of the assault weapon ban “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence” and remarked: “due to the fact that the relative rarity with which the banned guns were used in crime before the ban … the maximum potential effect of the ban on gun violence outcomes would be very small…”.
A further study assessing the 1994-2004 ban’s impact on gun markets and gun violence, conducted by scholars of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, and funded by the US Department of Justice, found:
Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. AWs [“assault weapons”] were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. LCMs [large capacity magazines] are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current [at the time of the ban] magazine capacity limit) without reloading.
Not coincidentally, lacking any evidence of its presumed and desired effectiveness, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was not renewed after its expiry in September 2004.
In the late ’80s, in Orlando, Florida, 33 women were raped in only 9 months. The Orlando Sun-Sentinel newspaper and the police offered a very well publicized firearms safety course.
Everybody knew that in Orlando there were 6,000 women who had handguns and knew how to use them. The result was that in the following nine-month period, there were only three rapes. In addition, crime in general declined. The fact is, Orlando, Fla., was the only U.S. city with a population of over 100,000 that had a reduction in crime that year.
In fact, it is not only Orlando that experienced a dramatic decrease in crime. After the 1987 Florida right-to-carry legislation, homicide, firearm homicide and handgun homicide rates all decreased. Eight of Florida’s 10 largest cities experienced drastic decreases in homicide rates from 1987 through 1995… Miami Beach down an incredible 93 percent.
Opponents of Florida’s right-to-carry legislation claimed their state would become known as the “Gunshine State.” But the last quarter century’s actual experience (as of mid-2011, Florida has issued a total of 2,031,106 concealed-carry permits under the 1987 law) proves Florida’s trailblazing program to fight crime has been a tremendous success. As U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch, R- Utah, put it: “The effect of that legislation on state crime rates has been astonishing. The predictions of the gun-control advocates were wrong, flat wrong.”
Research by Dr John Lott, author of the book More Guns, Less Crime, published in three editions by the University of Chicago Press, was the first research on the effects not just of the federal ban but also of state legislation. Generally, his research found no impact of gun bans on violent crime rates, but the third edition of the book in 2010 offered evidence that Assault Weapon Bans even increased murder rates a little.
Leftist, uninformed media outlets sometimes may say that John Lott’s research has been “debunked”, but that is simply not true. In fact the National Research Council’s 2004 Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review, mentioned above, in Chapter 6 “Right-to-Carry Laws”, reviewed both Lott’s research and its critics Ayres & Donohue who were trying to refute its thesis, and concluded that neither offered definite proof, leaving the matter undecided.
But the criminologist on the panel, James Q. Wilson, wrote a dissent from this conclusion, saying that all the panel’s estimates on murder rates supported Lott’s conclusion on the effect of Right-to-Carry Laws on murder. He wrote:
In sum, I find that the evidence presented by Lott and his supporters suggests that RTC laws do in fact help drive down the murder rate, though their effect on other crimes is ambiguous.
Several attempts have been made to discredit Dr Lott’s research, but they all failed and backfired on the would-be discreditors’ reputation.
We must also remember that the burden of proof is on those who want to change the law, not on those who wish to maintain it, especially in view of gun laws’ potential to infringe Second Amendment rights.
In an interview, Lott says: “States with the largest increases in gun ownership also have the largest drops in violent crimes. Thirty-one states now have such laws—called “shall-issue” laws. These laws allow adults the right to carry concealed handguns if they do not have a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness.”
Since the time of the interview, more and more states have adopted those laws. The above video shows that the states passing laws permitting concealed weapons have steadily increased over the years (at this moment they are all the states with the exception of Illinois, which will be required to draft a concealed carry law by May 2013), and at the same time crime declined in those states after the passing of the laws.
John Lott explains that of course guns can create violence, but they can also deter it before it starts and stop it after it starts:
Criminals are deterred by higher penalties. Just as higher arrest and conviction rates deter crime, so does the risk that someone committing a crime will confront someone able to defend him or herself. There is a strong negative relationship between the number of law-abiding citizens with permits and the crime rate — as more people obtain permits there is a greater decline in violent crime rates. For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent, and robberies by over 2 percent.
Concealed handgun laws reduce violent crime for two reasons. First, they reduce the number of attempted crimes because criminals are uncertain which potential victims can defend themselves. Second, victims who have guns are in a much better position to defend themselves.
Virtually nothing is without drawbacks. The question is always of balance, of net effect. And here we need to look at the evidence.
Lott has extensively researched the subject not just in the USA but all over the world and in the above video he says: “I can’t find a place in the world where you’ve had a ban on guns and you haven’t seen an increase in murders afterwards.”
Much of Eastern Europe; most of Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa; all but one South American nation; and all of Central America and Mexico suffer even higher murder rates than we do. For example, despite very strict gun control, Russia’s and Brazil’s homicide rates over the last decade averaged about four to five times higher than ours.
Indeed, if you are going to look across all nations and not just a select few, what you find is that the nations with the strictest gun control tend to have higher murder rates.
A Foreign Policy magazine’s survey of gun laws and gun crime in 9 countries in different parts of the world, “Armed, but Not Necessarily Dangerous”, although clearly biased in favour of gun restrictions, did not find any correlation between firearm control and ownership on one hand and violent crime on the other.
Many of the countries surveyed, such as Yemen, Iraq, Cyprus or Serbia, have a past or present history of conflict and instability, so the parallel with the US is difficult to draw, but the case of Switzerland is particularly interesting because the law there is more permissive for motives that are close to the United States’ reasons and history.
Switzerland has a unique system of national defence, developed over the centuries. “Instead of a standing, full-time army, the country requires every man to undergo some form of military training for a few days or weeks a year throughout most of their lives.”
Switzerland also requires all men aged 20-42 to own automatic rifles (i.e. military rifles, the kind that is illegal for civilians in the US to possess without a stringent permit, not the semi-automatic weapons that in the States represent virtually all guns produced for civilians), but has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world.
Guns are deeply rooted within Swiss culture — but the gun crime rate is so low that statistics are not even kept.
In 2001, with a population of 6 million, at least 2 million firearms, including about 600,000 automatic rifles and 500,000 pistols, were estimated to be kept in Swiss homes.
The estimated total number of guns held by civilians in Switzerland today is 3,400,000. The rate of private gun ownership is 45.7 firearms per 100 people. “In a comparison of the number of privately owned guns in 178 countries, Switzerland ranked at No. 22.”
Once discharged, men serve in the Swiss equivalent of the US National Guard, but still have to train occasionally and are given bolt rifles. Women do not have to own firearms, but are encouraged to.
In addition to the government-provided arms, there are few restrictions on buying weapons…
But despite the wide ownership and availability of guns, violent crime is extremely rare. There are only minimal controls at public buildings and politicians rarely have police protection.
Switzerland is indeed a unique country, and its history has very much been moulded by its geography. Its Alpine nature has meant isolation, creating a deep sense of need for self-reliance and self-defence in its population, which has made it prouder, less dependent on the state, and more attached to its liberties. Rather, the state relies on the citizens for defence, fact which increases their freedom.
In the 19th and early 20th-centuries, for example, Switzerland was a haven for anarchists fleeing from neighbouring Italy. Switzerland has a strong tradition of direct democracy, in the form of its many referendums, and of decentralization: it is unusual for such a small country to be a federation of states, known as “cantons”.
For all these reasons, the rationale behind Switzerland’s exceptional gun laws have something in common with the motivations at the root of the American Constitution’s Second Amendment.
So, more guns do not appear to breed more criminality and there is no empirical evidence to support this thesis. If, on the other hand, you look at successful results in the war on crime, such as New York City’s dramatic reduction in crime achieved by Mayor Giuliani, you see that it was not through new gun control laws but due to enforcement of existing laws and zealous prosecution of criminals.
But, as observers have remarked, addressing guns is infinitely easier than addressing people and the problems created by them, especially when there is a fear of being called “racist”.
The calls for a ban have focused on rifles and not handguns. Not only do rifles of any type cause a very low number of murders per year (323 in 2011) compared to hammers and clubs (496); hands, fists and feet (728); and knives (1,694). But also, according to the same official statistics by the FBI, by far the weapons most used to commit homicides are handguns (6,220).
The tragic mass shootings that hit the headlines are fortunately exceptional; what is common is inner city gang crime, committed with illegal firearms, mostly handguns, easily available. As the Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008 report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice makes it clear, although gun violence in the country is generally on a steady decline, “The profile of the typical murderer with a gun is a black male in a city under the age of 25”.
In our urban areas — and gun violence happens much more in urban areas than anywhere else — young black men, often in broken families, are joining gangs and committing acts of violence against each other. There have been 24 people murdered with guns in Chicago since the Newtown tragedy… Just look at the most violent neighborhood in Chicago with 202 murders since 2007.
Daniel Greenfield tells a tale of two countries, America and Obamerica:
67% of firearm murders took place in the country’s 50 largest metro areas. The 62 cities in those metro areas have a firearm murder rate of 9.7, more than twice the national average. Among teenagers the firearm murder rate is 14.6 or almost three times the national average.
Those are the crowded cities of Obamerica. Those are the places with the most restrictive gun control laws and the highest crime rates. And many of them have been run by Democrats and their political machines for almost as long as they have been broken.
Obama won every major city in the election, except for Jacksonville and Salt Lake City. And the higher the death rate, the bigger his victory…
Chicago, the capital of Obamerica, is a city run by gangs and politicians. It has 68,000 gang members, four times the number of police officers. Chicago politicians solicit the support of gang members in their campaigns, accepting laundered contributions from them, hiring their members and tipping them off about upcoming police raids. And their biggest favor to the gang bosses is doing nothing about the epidemic of gang violence…
America does not have a gun violence problem. Obamerica does. And Obamerica has a gun violence problem for the same reason that it has a drug problem and a broken family problem…
But Obama, like every Chicago politician before him, don’t want to end the violence. The death toll is profitable, not just for rappers writing bad poetry about dealing drugs and shooting rivals, but for the politicians atop that heap who score money and gain power by using the problems of Obamerica as some sort of call to conscience for the rest of the country.
Picking a fight with law-abiding rural America — Republican voters who, to quote Romney in the opposite sense, would never vote for them — does not cost the Democrats anything.
But similarly, as some have done, blaming the mentally ill and the current psychiatric system that does not detain them involuntarily is analogous to asking for gun control: both positions try to control what cannot be controlled with such simple measures.
Violent crime committed by psychotics is also, like mass killings, a very rare event. The proportion of psychotic people who commit violent crimes is extremely low. And rare events are difficult to handle statistically.
It is not so simple to predict psychotic behaviour. It is many, many times likelier to make a mistake than not, and we should not deprive people of their rights, be they gun rights protected by the Second Amendment or the right to freedom that applies to the mentally ill as much as to anyone else, without a justifiable cause.
In some ways, this request is a knee-jerk reaction without foundation, like the one of the anti-gunners.
You cannot derive general principles or laws affecting large populations — like gun control — or groups — like the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill — from the occurrence of events that are rare, however tragic they may be.
To address the complex, multi-faceted problem of all crime, including violence and murder, requires the same kind of change that would also deal with many other societal problems, including substance abuse which also has an effect on the current rate of mental illness. An obvious and central necessary measure is to re-establish the importance of the family.
If Hollywood stars, who are so keen to decrease violence by gun restriction laws, decided to refuse roles in films that are filled with mindless violence, they would certainly do something good. I don’t know whether the reduction of violence that serves no purpose and seems to be an end in itself (in perfect analogy with massacres like the one committed in Newtown) in movies, video games and on TV would go some way to prevent those massacres — there is no evidence for that either — but at the very least it would help reverse the prevailing dumbing down, raise the artistic value of films and inject more content into them by forcing movie-makers to think of something that is not violence, sex or vulgar language.
Enza Ferreri is an Italian-born Philosophy graduate and writer living in London. She blogs at www.enzaferreri.blogspot.co.uk.
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