Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Guns: Not Like Knives, Also Not Ubiquitous

I recently took on why banning guns doesn't mean you have to ban knives, bleach, chainsaws or dirty looks.  Here's another familiar refrain from gun rights proponents:
"If you ban guns, then only criminals will have guns."
 This one works on several levels, but aside from the slightly clever word-play truism where banning guns makes criminals out of previously legal gun owners, the more serious point behind this sentiment is that gun regulation simply won't work, and any effort to ban guns will only be effective on those who respect the law, and simply choose not to obtain guns legally.  You'll often see Prohibition cited in the same breath, because widespread disobedience of the laws banning alcohol somehow means that all laws that prohibit anything are therefore useless. 

Guns, Booze; Not the Same Thing

The first thing to say about Prohibition is that alcohol is a lot easier to manufacture than guns.  Archeological evidence suggests humans were making alcohol back in the Stone Age.  We didn't figure out how to use explosive propellents to launch projectiles with reasonable accuracy and effectiveness until the 1100s.  It simply doesn't follow that everyone capable of making a still or brewing beer in a bathtub would also be capable of producing usable guns.  In fact, of the few people with the skills to make a gun, it's quite likely they would make guns that were considerably less sophisticated, accurate, and effective than those made in major arms producers' high end factories.  Making an automatic weapon that can maintain a high rate of accurate fire with few jams and that doesn't explode isn't a trivial undertaking.  In fact, historically even the weapons made in factories have had major problems.  Meanwhile the dangers of bathtub beer and backwoods moonshine isn't that it's less effective, but that it's too effective and kills its users by poisoning them. 

The second thing is that Prohibition actually did succeed at substantially reducing overall alcohol consumption while it was in effect and even for a few years after it was lifted.  Yes, lots of people still drank, but many did not, and even of people who still drank, they typically drank less than they did before Prohibition.  Does that mean Prohibition was a policy success?  Well no, but the case against prohibition of alcohol doesn't rest totally on the ban being ineffective, but in the side-effects like the growth of organized crime, and in the deeper philisophical questions about whether it can be justified to ban alcohol in a free society.  In a universe where Prohibition saw widespread adherence, it would still be plausible to argue against it.

Supply and Demand Law Works With Guns Too

As relates to guns, the reduction in alcohol consumption levels most clearly points to the increased cost, and reduced availability of booze while it was illegal.  Some of the reduction would come from people afraid or unwilling to break the law, but given the widespread perception that many if not most people disobeyed prohibition, it's pretty reasonable to see that making alcohol considerably more expensive meant many people drank a lot less of it.  There's every reason to believe the same thing happens with guns where they are more heavily restricted.  For example
Although the street price for the handgun in Russia is between 500 to 700 U.S. dollars, the Sankei reports a seller willing to take the risk can command nearly 10 times those figures in Japan —- from 500,000 to 600,000 yen.
And closer to home, the RCMP reported in 2007 that '“[h]igh end” handguns are presently selling on the street for three times the retail price.'

The simple economic reality is that even with modern automation in manufacturing bringing down the production cost, guns aren't "cheap" - and multiplying the legal retail price (which a quick search shows starts at about $250 for the smallest handguns) will easily put guns out of the economic range of a lot of people.  When you restrict guns, in economic terms you increase the costs associated with connecting buyers and sellers - in the Japanese case, Russians smuggling them into Japan must certainly demand a fair mark up, and in Canada, those who drive over to the US to buy them "legally" do so as well.

Then there is the real problem of locating a seller.  If guns are illegal this isn't a trivial challenge either.  An important example:
The Norwegian man who has admitted to going on a shooting spree and being behind a bomb attack which killed more than 90 people, Anders Behring Breivik, came to Prague in search of an AK-47 and semi-automatic pistol. Breivik had a picture of the Czech capital as a dangerous place where he could make a weapons deal with drugs dealers in sleazy bars and brothels. He left the city after having sex with two women — likely prostitutes — but with no weapons.
An anecdote, no doubt, but a revealing one given that it involves a man highly motivated to procure guns, and found himself unable to do so even in a city famed for organized crime.  Breivik would go on to get his guns legally in Norway (though it took him longer).

It turns out that many, possibly even most guns used in mass murder events were obtained legally.  One definite problem here is we don't know how many would-be mass murderers couldn't get ahold of guns, and gave up on their schemes.  Japan suffered a rare mass murder event not perpetrated with a gun, and it's worth asking if many more than 8 children would have died that day if the mentally disturbed killer had found it easy to obtain a gun in Japan.

We also shouldn't pretend that mass murderers are the only people of concern when it comes to obtaining guns.  Violent spouses and depressed people who become suicidal may also buy a gun on impulse and kill someone.  When it comes to criminals, even if you assume every mobster will still have the ability to get guns, there are a lot of criminals who aren't high level mobsters or other professionals living a life of crime.  It's quite reasonable to argue that Britain has such a problem with stabbings because they have a) a big, poor, quasi-permanent underclass and b) it's damn hard/expensive/risky to get a gun there.   I'm not a fan of Britain's massive wealth disparity and calcified class system, but is there anything about the stabbing problem that would be better if those same kids had easy access to inexpensive firearms?

I'm going to break here, and take this up further in another post.

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