Gun Control Twists
In "Gun Control's Twisted Outcome" (November), Joyce Malcolm claims that "in the four years from 1997 to 2001, the rate of violent crime [in England] more than doubled." She asserts that British gun control caused the increase.
It took me less than five minutes to find the official English crime statistics, at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/hosb702.pdf. In the section on violent crime I found the following:
"Estimates from the BCS [British Crime Survey] reveal large and consistent falls in violent crime overall since 1995....Longer-term trends in violence overall continue to show significant declines. Comparison of results reported to the BCS in 2001-'02 with those for earlier years show a 17 per cent decline in BCS violence since 1999, a 22 per cent decline since 1997 and a 33 per cent decline since 1995, all of these decreases being statistically significant....
"The fall in violent crime may seem surprising, given media attention to violent crime. However, the BCS suggests that violent crime in general has been falling for some time. Although BCS estimates present an average experience of violence, it is possible that the very rare but more extreme incidents of violence have increased at the same time. It is the latter that are more often reported in the media."
I trust that Malcolm will now withdraw her article and replace it with one attributing the violent crime decrease to gun control.
Reason's consistent defense of "gun rights" has distressed this longtime reader for years. It ought to distress any libertarian, perhaps even more than others' advocacy of gun prohibition. Gun control is at the cusp of a central difficulty of libertarian politics, and it needs much more subtle, balanced, and careful analysis than I have ever seen in reason.
A libertarian distinguishes between proper (coercive) functions of government and those that are improper. Roughly speaking, proper functions defend citizens against coercion� from abroad or from within. We typically focus our political action against improper functions such as welfare guarantees and prevention of self-harm.
But it is the recognition of proper government functions that distinguishes libertarians from anarchists. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia went to great lengths to construct a libertarian argument for government. And here is the argument for gun control. I have a legitimate self-defense reason to fear and ask my government to take action against a neighbor's possession of and access to lethal weapons, not only after he uses them but before, if they are sufficiently dangerous. And a libertarian politics should recognize and support such a principle.
An individual does not have an absolute right to own a gun, except in an anarchy. Nozick's and other libertarian constructions of legitimate government recognize that rights to self- defense must be --in part --transferred to a government and allowed only limited scope in individuals.
I am not allowed to own a tank or an atom bomb, and I feel sure you agree with that. So the line is drawn somewhere. Prohibition (or near-prohibition) of handguns may or may not be a good idea, but it deserves serious and balanced examination by libertarians. And unfortunately there is no simple answer.
Joyce Malcolm's piece fails to advance the discussion of gun control. Statistics are used naively at best: the datum that gunpoint robberies rose 53 percent between April and November of 2001 is almost certainly a random fluctuation and not by itself useful to the argument.
Trends over longer periods are useful, but the reported rise in handgun crimes between 1997 and 1999 took place at the same time that U.K. standards for crime reporting changed, with systematic increases in reported crimes across all categories (see page 49 of www.homeoffice. gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/hosb702.pdf). This U.K. Home Office document and the one at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs/hosb601.pdf make fascinating reading and will disabuse many of the simplistic notion that the U.S. has a uniformly worse crime problem than Europe. But they do not show that the rate of violent crime in the U.K. has been "soaring" since 1991 (rather, there was a rise and then decline to previous levels from 1991 to 2001). And they certainly do not show that handgun prohibition has caused any increase or led to "a more dangerous society." More likely they show simply that prohibition law does not amount to effective prohibition.
Many problems with gun control are evident, from conflicts with the Second Amendment to the failure of nearly every government attempt at prohibition of other widespread personal activities such as alcohol and drug consumption. But libertarians should be grappling with the implications of their distinction from anarchists, and we should challenge gun control advocates and experts to devise better gun control --whether stricter or less strict --so that the U.S. and European countries are safer.