A Libertarian Look at Gun Control

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On November 20, 1971, WNAC-TV (Channel 7, Boston) broadcast an editorial calling for tough gun control. Commenting on the fact that two Bostonians had been shot and killed the previous week, the station decried "easy access" to firearms in the Bay State. The editorialist ominously quoted Superior Court Judge Allen Hale's statement that, "You can get an anti-tank gun just by signing a receipt." This editorial was rebroadcast no fewer than 27 times the following week.

Regrettably, neither Judge Hale nor WNAC set forth statistics on the number of murders committed with anti-tank guns, the number of robberies perpetrated with flame-throwers, or the number of women raped at bazooka point.

I mention the above as an example of the hysterical gun control propaganda with which we are daily bombarded. Gun prohibitionists picture America as a nation teeming with sadists, paranoids, and gangsters, armed to the teeth and lusting for blood.

Gun ownership is blamed for political assassinations, radical terrorism, and the spiraling crime rate. Gun control is the liberal panacea for ending violence in America. This view is entirely consistent with their philosophy, for in the liberal universe humans are automatons—robots whose buttons are pushed by those twin programmers, heredity and environment. Persons don't make the decision to commit murder. It is the presence of guns which creates the "violent atmosphere" in which murder somehow just happens. Ergo, remove the guns, and there will be no more killings. It's almost as if the liberals, who have long denied human free will, are now postulating that it is these inanimate objects, guns, which are the cognizant beings.

For years I've been writing and speaking against gun control. Yet I'm neither a hunter nor a gun collector. I don't view guns as objects of entertainment or as adult toys.

My opposition to gun control stems from a basic libertarian view of man and society. I oppose gun control for the same reason that I oppose censorship, antimarijuana legislation, or any other victimless crime laws. Government should protect individuals from the initiation of force. Otherwise, what a person does with his life and property is no concern of the State. Neither individual freedom nor individual responsibility is compatible with laws which seek to protect people from themselves.

Gun control, however, is far more dangerous than other forms of prohibition. It is a direct, and rather substantial, assault on the right to life itself. For in our violent society guns have become an increasingly necessary instrument of survival, just as they were in frontier days. Gun control, which seeks to ultimately ban these survival tools, will leave the peaceable individual totally vulnerable to the criminal element.

WHAT GUN CONTROL DOESN'T

Before considering the survival aspect of gun ownership, let us examine the efficacy of controls in the light of their stated purpose, the prevention of crime. The twin objectives of gun control, as set forth by its proponents, are to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and to prevent crimes of passion. It accomplishes neither.

The late J. Edgar Hoover once stated: "Hoodlums and criminal gangs will obtain weapons regardless of controls" (FBI Enforcement Bulletin, June 1963). The former director of the FBI was well aware of the fact that most criminals don't apply for a gun license and then purchase a pistol at the neighborhood sporting goods store. It's far more likely that the gun a robber carries has been stolen, acquired on the black market, illegally manufactured, or smuggled from abroad.

Machine guns and other automatic weapons have been banned since the 1930's. Yet the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and other terrorist groups seem to have no difficulty whatsoever in obtaining these awesome weapons. If the strict legislation in this area can't keep machine guns out of terrorist hands, how can the State hope to regulate something as mundane as a rifle or pistol?

Roughly 10 percent of the gun crimes committed in New York City each year are perpetrated with zip guns, homemade pistols constructed with umbrella tubing (Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Senate Judiciary Committee, 90th Cong., 2d sess. [1968], pp. 734-36). Obviously, gun control will have no effect on these weapons, or any others covertly manufactured.

If you doubt the easy access of the criminal element to guns, even in strict control areas, consider the following statistic. New York City's Sullivan Law is perhaps the toughest gun control statute in the country. It provides for the licensing of all firearms, and, be it known, very few licenses are issued. Despite this, in 1966 unlicensed handguns accounted for 87.16 percent of all gun crimes committed in New York (Subcommittee, pp. 734-36).

Detroit is another metropolitan area blessed with strict gun control. In 1971, 75 percent of all shootings in that city were committed with unregistered weapons. Detroit's police commissioner estimated that there were then over half a million unregistered guns in Detroit.

Another measure of the ineffectiveness of gun control is its inability to substantially decrease gun crimes. In fact, many areas enacting strong controls, after years of the liberal attitude toward gun ownership, have seen a drastic upsurge in the crime rate.

PLEADING THE CASE

Gun prohibitionists often choose loaded comparisons to prove the effectiveness of controls. A prime example of this type of lying with statistics is a 1968 Department of Justice report, "Firearm Facts." This study compared murder rates in five strong-gun-control states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island (3.1 murders per 100,000 people in the year 1967), with those in five states having relative freedom of ownership: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Nevada, and Arizona (9.1 murders per 100,000 people). To the unwary observer, it seemed that gun control does indeed result in a decrease in crime.

Closer examination, however, reveals the Justice Department playing with a stacked deck. Of the five states without strict controls, three are in the deep South, known for racial violence and, if you'll pardon the pun, hair-trigger tempers. A fourth state, Nevada, is the sole state with wide-open gambling and attracts hoods like a pork barrel draws politicians.

In the same year in which this comparison was made, the Justice Department could have selected five other states without controls: Iowa, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and New Hampshire—where the murder rate was only 1.8 per 100,000, substantially lower than in the five strict states (Mark Benson, "A Controlled Look at Gun Controls," New York Law Forum, 1968, p. 735). Naturally, the government was quite careful to set up an example which supported its position in favor of controls.

Adding weight to the argument against gun control is the case of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Here are two cities in the same state, which should make a much fairer comparison than that found in the Justice Department report.

Philadelphia enacted a strict gun control law in 1966. In the next 2 years there was a 917 percent increase in homicides in the City of Brotherly Love! During the same period, in Pittsburgh, which has only the normal Pennsylvania 48-hour purchase delay for handgun sales, there was a one percent decline in homicides (Benson, p. 739).

It is even more interesting to compare crime rates in the same city before and after the enactment of gun control. In 1968, four cities—Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, and Toledo—which previously had comparatively lenient restrictions on guns, adopted harsh measures. In the period between 1968 and 1969 the homicide rates in Miami and Toledo remained fairly steady. But Chicago had a 10 percent increase and San Francisco reported a dramatic 38 percent increase in homicides (Benson, p. 739). If gun control is an effective device for combating crime, the statistics don't prove it.

SKEWED COMPARISONS

Gun controllers often cite England as an example of a nation with strict controls which, it is contended, result in a low crime rate. But this is another loaded example. England is a nation with a relatively homogeneous society, as well as other sociological factors which make for less violence. A closer look at the crime rate in England points out the inappropriateness of comparison. London and New York are cities of about the same size. Each has strict gun control, though New York's is a bit tougher. In 1972 there were 113 murders in London and 1,725 murders in New York. On the other hand, there were over 4,000 privately licensed handguns in London, compared with about 500 in New York ("Gun Registration; Costly Experiment or Crime Cure?" pamphlet of National Shooting Sports Foundation). ("Privately licensed" means issued to homeowners or shopkeepers for their own protection, rather than to private security guards.) If there were a favorable relationship between the number of private guns in existence and the murder rate, London, with roughly 800 percent more privately licensed weapons, should have a higher homicide rate rather than one substantially lower than New York's.

If we must compare the United States with another country, why choose England? In Switzerland, every male of 16 years or more must serve in the militia and store his firearms and ammunition in his home. Yet the incidence of gun crimes in that country is infinitesimal.

The foregoing illustrates a fact of prohibition in which libertarians are well aware. The State cannot effectively ban any commodity, be it alcohol, drugs, pornography, or guns, which certain individuals want badly enough. Humans are ingenious in devising ways to obtain contraband. This is quite apparent in the case of guns. Gun control is designed to foil criminals, professional lawbreakers. Guns are the tools of their trade. Controls will no more deprive them of guns than the speed limit will compel bank robbers to drive their getaway cars at 25 mph in a residential zone.

GUN CONTROL CAN TEMPER PASSIONS?

Some gun control advocates admit that controls won't inhibit professional criminals. They argue, however, that controls will prevent many so-called crimes of passion. A crime of passion is a killing, or serious injury, which is the result of an altercation between friends or members of the same family.

The scenario for the typical crime of passion runs something like this: husband and wife are at home drinking on Saturday evening. An argument ensues. Horrendous insults and vile threats are exchanged. Husband, in a fit of rage, pulls out his trusty revolver. "Bang, bang; you're dead."

Such interfamilial murders are one of the most prevalent types of homicide. The tragedy of such senseless slayings can't be denied. But is gun control the answer?

Not according to Dr. Marvin Wolfgang of Pennsylvania University. Dr. Wolfgang, considered an authority in the field of criminal behavior, formulated Wolfgang's Law: homicides will occur whether or not a gun is available! Dr. Wolfgang writes:

Few homicides due to shooting could be avoided merely if a firearm was not immediately present, for the offender would choose some other weapon to achieve the same destructive goal. [Patterns of Criminal Homicide (Patterson Smith, 1975), p. 557.]

Now, let us introduce gun control in our hypothetical family fracas. When the enraged husband reaches for his gun he discovers it's missing. The police confiscated it last week, when private ownership of handguns was banned. Will the husband: a) forget his murderous intent, yawn, prepare a glass of warm milk, kiss his wife on the cheek, and retire for the evening? b) grab a knife, rope, or heavy object and complete the act? or c) buy a gun on the black market the following day, in preparation for the next family argument?

Only someone completely divorced from reality, such as a prohibitionist, believes that obstructing access to the means will prevent the act. Two rather important factors would have to be assumed—that guns are completely banned and that the prohibition is obeyed.

ENFORCING PROHIBITION

Most gun controllers state that their purpose is to merely regulate gun ownership, keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Yet crimes of passion are usually committed by individuals with no previous criminal record or history of mental illness. How then will the omniscient State determine who might someday have a homicidal impulse? Will it administer psychological tests to license applicants? Will anyone who's ever consulted a psychiatrist or only those with provable paranoid delusions be denied a license? One begins to perceive the impossibility of screening applicants for mental stability.

It is also assumed that the gun control ordinance is obeyed. Past experience completely refutes this premise.

Writing in the New York Law Forum, Attorney Mark Benson points out the extent to which gun owners ignore oppressive laws:

When the number of [gun] confiscations [by the police] is compared with the number of registrations, the inference is inescapable that the fraction of total firearms represented by registered weapons is quite small. Notwithstanding their strict registration ordinance, the Chicago police are able to confiscate in a year more illegal weapons than are registered; the New York police confiscate pistols at a rate that would exhaust the number registered, if the figures are taken at face value, in something like three years. And it seems certain that the police find in any given time interval only a fraction of the total unregistered weapons in the community. [1968, p. 718.]

Elsewhere in his article, Benson sets forth further evidence in support of his contention:

The new gun laws are simply not being obeyed. Recent experience suggests a development of quiet civil disobedience in this area. In New York City, the estimated number of gun owners ranges from 281,000 to 500,000. Only 40,000 have filed permit applications. In Illinois, only some 800,000 identification card applications have been filed, but the state's population is about 11,000,000 and at least 25% of these, if the national average holds true, must be gun owners. [p. 734.]

You will note that throughout this article I have referred to gun control as a prohibition. I've done so for two reasons. First, the more aggressive gun controllers openly admit that their ultimate goal is the complete prohibition of private ownership. One detects a faint odor of fascism in the following statement by Boston police commissioner Robert J. di Grazia:

I am not asking for registration or licensing, or the outlawing of cheap guns. I am saying that no private citizen, whatever his claim, should possess a handgun. Only police officers should. [Quoted in Stephen Overbeck, "Safer with a Gun? Don't Believe It!" Readers Digest, Feb. 1975, p. 138.]

My second reason for equating controls with prohibition is that licensing laws, when they are obeyed, usually block private access to firearms just as effectively as if they'd been banned in the first place.

WHAT GUN CONTROL DOES

Despite the protestations of the less vehement controllers that these laws are not designed to prevent the average person from possessing guns, this is exactly the result they've achieved. Individuals who wish to possess guns legally face almost insurmountable obstacles in the form of red tape, bureaucratic delay, and police discrimination.

Under New York's Sullivan Law, an applicant for a handgun license must pay a nonrefundable $20 application fee, make two or three visits to the local police station, and then wait six months to a year for the license to be issued or denied. Annual renewals require two more visits to the police station and an additional $10 fee.

Adding to the difficulty engendered by this procedure, the New York police have complete discretion in rejecting applications. In To Keep and Bear Arms, William Davidson discusses the type of police abuse which often occurs in this area:

The police in some jurisdictions, again New York City is an outstanding example, abuse this authority and wield it with a literal life or death power. Citizens who are refused permits for no valid reason, yet arm themselves anyway, frequently are more punitively prosecuted than those who assault or rob them. The police maxim under Sullivan-type controls is: "You don't need a gun; we'll protect you."

As an example of police discrimination, one could cite the case of a perfectly respectable New Yorker who was denied a license because his father had been arrested 20 years before for bookmaking.

Lastly, the fact that the appeals process to overrule a police decision is lengthy, costly, and unsure tends to discourage urban residents from applying for gun licenses, all of which has resulted in a virtual ban on the legal ownership of private handguns in New York City. In 1971, of the 24,354 pistol licenses in effect, only 564 were issued to individuals not employed as bank guards, nightwatchmen, or similar security personnel ("Gun Registration…").

Thus far it seems that gun control is an abject failure. It doesn't disarm criminals or terrorists; it doesn't prevent crimes of passion; but it does make it difficult for those unwilling to disobey the law to own firearms.

CONTROL WITH GUNS

But we have yet to consider the most telling argument against gun control—the importance of guns as defensive weapons. An examination of the daily newspapers reveals numerous examples of victims whose lives or property were saved by the intelligent use of a gun.

In December 1971, a gang of hoodlums invaded a Boston nursing home; the elderly patients seemed an easy target. They attacked one man, a paraplegic, with razor blades. The patient used a pistol, which he'd kept in the drawer of his nightstand for years, to kill two of the attackers and thus save his life.

Another incident in Boston occurred quite recently. As the victim, Mrs. Constance Howard, told a National Rifle Association audience, "If it hadn't been for that gun, both my husband and I would be dead." Mrs. Howard was referring to the robbery of her home on January 26, 1974. The trio of armed men who broke into her house savagely beat Mrs. Howard and her husband. The inside of her mouth was slit, a back tooth broken, and the cartilage inside her nose was smashed. She escaped from her assailants long enough to get her husband's gun. Though she's no marksman, Mrs. Howard managed to drive the robbers from her home, killing one of them, an ex-convict with a long history of armed robbery.

Even the New York Times, never known to condone law-of-the-West tactics, published a front page article about a black grocer named Elwood Carter (May 6, 1974, pp. 1, 58). Carter, who the Times described as "the latest embattled citizen standing up against crime," owns a small general store in the South Jamaica neighborhood of New York City. After suffering several robberies, the grocer saw fit to arm himself and his family with a double-barreled shotgun and three pistols—a Smith & Wesson .38, a .357 Magnum and a .22 Browning. The two men who tried to rob him on May 4 were greeted with this rather formidable arsenal. The result, by now, should be familiar—one dead, the other escaped with serious injuries.

Carter, however, is a veritable pacifist when compared with fellow New York grocer Felix Torro, whom the police call "The Shooter." In less than a year's time, Torro faced 15 bandits in 8 robbery attempts. He killed three, wounded four, scared the others away and "never lost a cent." "I work very hard," says Torro, "sometimes 17 hours a day. I'm not going to give up my money without a fight." (The Boston Record American, Oct. 26, 1971, p. 4.)

In recent years a number of police departments and private organizations have sponsored shooting clinics to instruct the novice in marksmanship. After a well-publicized shooting course for women in Orlando, Florida, the number of violent crimes against women declined abruptly. In fact, it's quite likely that lower assault and robbery rates in areas of the country where there is widespread gun ownership are a direct result of the criminal's reluctance to face an armed adversary.

The need for guns, for the defense of person and property, simply can't be overstated. Who will protect you from the depredations of the denizens of our jungle society? Surely not the police. Police departments are geared toward apprehending criminals after the crime has occurred, not preventing crime. Some law enforcement officials have the courage to admit this. When asked if he favored gun control, the outspoken police chief of Los Angeles, Ed Davis, replied:

I am going to keep my home armed and anybody who wants my guns will have to come and get them the hard way. What other protection do I have? There's not a police department big enough and well staffed enough to guarantee citizens that it can safeguard them—I certainly can't tell my citizens that, even though they're better protected than in many areas. [Interview in True Magazine, Jan. 1975.]

Only you can take the necessary measures to provide yourself and your family with the maximum degree of protection. This leaves you with several alternatives: you can repair to a Taoist Monastery to be instructed in the art of Kung Fu; you can quit civilization and live in the wilderness; or you can buy a gun and take the time and effort to learn to use it safely and effectively. And when your liberal friends begin dropping unsubtle hints about your "paranoia" you can relate one of my favorite anecdotes.

When the Pentagon Papers engendered so much legal controversy, two Washington reporters arrived at the home of Chief Justice Warren Burger late one evening, to insure coverage should the Justice Department make a late hour appeal to halt publication. When the newsmen rang his bell, near midnight, Mr. Burger answered the door wearing a bathrobe and armed with a mean-looking long-barreled pistol. Is it possible that the Chief Justice of the United States knows something the gun controllers don't?

Donald Feder received his J.D. from the Boston University Law School in 1972, and is currently practicing law in New York. He is active in the Free Libertarian Party in New York, has published numerous articles on free market economics and individualism, and is president of the Association of Libertarian Lawyers.

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