Chasing Demons


The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?, by David Kopel, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 470 pages, $28.95

In 1988 The New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming to show that Canadian gun control saves lives. The study found a higher homicide rate in Seattle than in Vancouver, with almost all of the additional deaths due to handguns. The authors attributed the difference to a Canadian law that makes handguns very difficult to obtain or carry legally. They said Seattle's higher homicide rate could not be due to economic differences, because the two cities had comparable average incomes. The study was widely seen as strong evidence that the United States should imitate Canada's approach to guns.

But as David Kopel observes in The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy, the Seattle-Vancouver study had crucial flaws. Although average incomes in the two cities were about the same, racial and ethnic demographics were not. Seattle had a larger proportion of poor blacks and Hispanics, groups that have considerably higher-than-average homicide rates. "If one limits the Seattle-Vancouver comparison to non-Hispanic whites," Kopel writes, "the homicide rates and gun victimization rates in the two cities are equal-despite Canada's stricter laws." Furthermore, Vancouver's handgun homicide rate had not changed since 1977, the year that the law affecting handguns was passed.

The credulous reception that the Vancouver-Seattle study received in the general press was largely due to the appeal of a simple syllogism: a) Country X has stricter gun control than the United States; b) country X has a lower crime rate than the United States; c) therefore, stricter gun control results in a lower crime rate. Kopel sets out to shatter this syllogism, along with many other gun-control myths. In the process, he reveals several striking parallels between gun control and drug control. Both are attempts to identify simple, concrete causes of complex phenomena; both tend to ignore the importance of social forces and cultural context; both have roots in campaigns against minorities; and both result in unintended costs, including erosion of civil liberties, that may outweigh any benefits.

As in the drug-policy debate, people on both sides of the gun-control controversy like to cite the experiences of other countries, often with little understanding of foreign laws, their history, or their consequences. Kopel has made an impressive attempt to remedy this problem, offering a nuanced, carefully documented analysis of the many issues raised by international comparisons of gun-control policies. The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy examines the gun-control approaches of seven foreign countries, devoting a chapter to each. The final three chapters discuss the possibility of importing these policies to the United States.

Kopel, a Denver attorney and an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute, carefully explains how each country's brand of gun control came about and exactly what it entails. This approach is occasionally tedious, but it makes the book a useful reference work (especially given the very thorough notes and index, which account for more than a third of the pages). Furthermore, the history is often fascinating. For example, Kopel explains that Japan never developed a broad gun culture because the country's rulers confiscated all weapons from the general population 400 years ago. Although Japanese warriors used guns in battle, they considered them aesthetically inferior to the sword, which was linked to the samurai code of honor.

Aside from intrinsic interest, there is an important reason for all this detail. Kopel's main argument is that gun control cannot be separated from the culture in which it operates. "Cultural conditions, not gun laws, are the most important factors in a nation's crime rate," he writes. "Young adults in Washington, D.C., are subject to strict gun control, but no social control, and they commit a staggering amount of armed crime. Young adults in Zurich are subject to minimal gun control, but strict social control, and they commit almost no violent crime."

Kopel argues persuasively that, for various social and historical reasons, Americans are more prone to violent crime than the citizens of countries that gun-control advocates admire. The Japanese, for example, "are among the most law-abiding people on earth, and far more law-abiding than Americans. America's nongun robbery rate is over seventy times Japan's, an indication that something more significant than gun policy is involved in the differing crime rates between our two nations."

Just as culture affects how people take drugs and react to them, it influences how people use guns—whether for crime, suicide, hunting, self-defense, target shooting, or military service. In an affluent, socially cohesive country like Switzerland, which has a strong tradition of responsible firearm use, widespread gun ownership coexists with a very low crime rate. But in a poor, socially fragmented country like Jamaica, where firearms are associated primarily with criminals and an oppressive government, guns cause a lot of problems. (So does gun control, it turns out.)

Culture also influences which gun laws can be implemented successfully. In Japan, where conformity and order are preeminent values, almost everyone willingly obeys strict gun laws. In the United States, a society built on individualism and suspicion of authority, such voluntary compliance is unlikely, to say the least.

Supporters of gun control often prefer to ignore such subtleties, insisting that guns are the problem and getting rid of them is the (universal) solution. Like the war on drugs, the war on guns is largely a symbolic struggle. "Guns are modern-day demons," declares an antigun priest from Denver. Kopel observes: "Perhaps it is easier to trace America's problems to 'wicked' objects like guns or drugs, rather than to consider the depressing possibility that America may include a disproportionately large number of wicked people….By blaming objects, a person can avoid having to blame individuals for their moral choices and lack of self-control." On the other hand, some gun controllers "seem motivated by a desire to express their disdain for the kind of people who own guns." Many urbanites view guns as a mark of barbarism that civilized societies should strive to eliminate.

Not surprisingly, given its symbolic function, gun control has often been aimed at outsiders. Just as American drug laws targeted the cocaine use of blacks and the opium use of Chinese immigrants, American gun laws were designed to keep firearms out of the hands of blacks in the South and immigrants from central, eastern, and southern Europe in the North. And like drug-control measures (such as the ban on marijuana, driven by fictitious reports of "reefer madness"), "gun-control laws are enacted predominantly in times of public hysteria over an exaggerated and often nonexistent threat." Early in this century, Kopel notes, labor strife and fear of anarchists led several countries to approve stricter gun control. More recently, one or two violent episodes involving a lone gunman have been enough to provoke dramatic revision of gun laws in England, Australia, and the United States.

The atmosphere surrounding gun legislation is usually not conducive to careful analysis. Like drug laws—which, among other things, deem marijuana more dangerous than alcohol—gun laws commonly make arbitrary distinctions that have nothing to do with relative hazards. British law, for example, makes shotguns, viewed as "a toy of the landed gentry," easier to obtain and use than rifles and handguns. The licensing system is less stringent, and unloaded shotguns, unlike rifles and handguns, may be carried in public. Yet a shotgun, especially at close range, is far more lethal than a small-caliber rifle or handgun. Kopel notes that British legislators, like their American counterparts, tend to assume that a firearm associated with the military must be more deadly than a firearm intended for hunting. "That assumption is wrong," he writes. "Many hunting weapons are designed to kill 600-pound animals with a single shot from a third of a mile away, while military rifles are deliberately designed to wound humans (not kill them) at shorter range."

Partly because of such mistaken assumptions, Kopel notes, gun control can lead to worrisome substitution effects. Just as a ban on marijuana may increase the use of dangerous inhalants, an effective ban on handguns may encourage criminals to use more-deadly weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns. Even if muggers switch to knives, Kopel argues, their victims are no better off, since knife wounds are no more survivable than handgun wounds. (Similarly, his examination of suicide statistics in countries that have adopted strict gun control leads Kopel to conclude that such laws mainly induce people to choose other, equally lethal ways of killing themselves.)

Gun control can affect crime patterns in other ways as well. For example, Kopel notes that burglary is the only category of violent crime that is more common in Britain than in the United States. Furthermore, "burglary is a more socially destructive crime in Britain because most British burglars attack houses when a victim is present. A 1982 survey found 59 percent of attempted burglaries take place against an occupied home, compared to just 13 percent in the United States." The reason seems clear: About 4 percent of British households report having a gun, compared to about 50 percent of U.S. households. Surveys of American criminals confirm that burglars avoid occupied homes because they're afraid of being shot. (More generally, surveys find that criminals pass over victims they think may be armed.)

Perhaps the most troubling unintended consequence of gun control is the erosion of civil liberties. In one country after another, Kopel shows that gun bans, like drug bans, require broad search and seizure powers and encourage the compromise of protections for the accused. All of the countries that gun-control advocates cite as models have weaker safeguards for individual rights than the United States. The most extreme example in the book is Japan, where civilian gun ownership is very rare. Despite official guarantees of civil liberties, government surveillance is taken for granted, and law-enforcement authorities do not worry about legal niceties. Kopel's international perspective also lends some credence to the view that apparently mild and reasonable forms of gun control are often a precursor to prohibition. Particularly disturbing are administrative abuses, already evident in some U.S. jurisdictions, that turn licensing procedures into formidable and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to gun ownership.

Kopel argues that these and other policies that make it difficult for law-abiding citizens to buy firearms ultimately weaken a responsible gun ethic. When only outlaws have guns, as when only outlaws have drugs, abuse is conspicuous. In cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., where guns are virtually impossible to obtain legally, young people have no positive models of firearm use because "responsible gun ownership by ordinary citizens has been driven underground." Kopel contrasts this with the situation in Switzerland, where every adult male keeps at least one gun in the home and children learn firearm use from the example of their parents.

But Kopel is not advocating that the United States adopt the Swiss approach, requiring every man to serve in a militia, keep a weapon, and maintain his shooting skills. Rather, "an appropriate gun policy for America…is to encourage social control and civic virtue in gun ownership." For example, he suggests that local and state governments remove legal barriers to responsible gun use—not only firearm bans but also less obvious restrictions, such as zoning ordinances that discriminate against shooting ranges and state laws that prohibit school districts from offering riflery classes.

After Kopel's review of the elaborate gun-control policies in other countries, his recommendations may seem surprisingly modest. But he makes a compelling case that none of the foreign approaches he has discussed would be appropriate for the United States. For one thing, all of these models are inconsistent with America's tradition of civil liberties—not only the right to bear arms, which (as Kopel shows) has stronger roots here than anywhere else, but also the right to privacy and the right to fair criminal procedures.

Moreover, Kopel notes, the United States has an unusually strong gun culture: "Few countries besides America had such a coincidence of causes for armament: open hunting, citizen militias, an armed frontier, violent cities, distrust of authority. Nowhere else in the world did environmental and sociocultural conditions foster use of shotguns and rifles and handguns." Consequently, the United States has a relatively high ratio of guns to people (more than one per adult)—so high that even some advocates admit that gun control may no longer be practical here. Gun owners, like drug users, number in the tens of millions.

"Instead of a futile attempt to erase gun culture, there must be a conscientious effort to mold gun culture for the better," Kopel concludes. "A realistic American gun policy must accept the permanence of guns in American life." The challenge of a practical approach to guns, then, is much the same as the challenge of a practical approach to drugs: to adapt to risks rather than trying to eliminate them, and to focus on people instead of demons.

Jacob Sullum is associate editor of REASON.