Foreign Policy

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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.

Tim Lambert
Sydney, Australia

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.

Jim Whitehead
Via e-mail

First, it is true that the nonviolent crime rate in England is higher than it is in the United States. But the violent crime rate in England is much lower than it is in the U.S. For the gun control hypothesis to be correct we must assume that guns deter certain types of crimes but not others. Since the "free gun" advocates believe that guns are an important part of self-defense it should follow that well-armed citizens are well-protected citizens. The English statistics on violent crimes do not bear this out. Crimes against persons, murder, and rape are much less frequent than in the U.S.

Second, if it is the "gun culture" that explains the disparity in crime, we should expect the relationship between the two countries' relative levels of crime to be basically consistent. Yet this is not the case. Around 1981 the levels of nonviolent crime in the U.S. and England were about the same. Then the levels of nonviolent crime in the U.S. started to rapidly decrease, while the levels remained the same or increased slightly in England.

It so happens that these shifts reflect the relative changes in incarceration rates in the U.S. for nonviolent crimes. In other words, we started throwing our criminals in jail and the British did not.

Mark Liveringhouse
Minneapolis, MN

I have always known the Brits had some eccentrics, but are they all mindless as a hammer?

I am 68-year-old fifth-generation Texan. At the risk of confirming our "Wild West" reputation, I will tell you of a widely known saying that I first heard at an early age on the subject of then illegally carrying a pistol on your person or in your car: "Better to be convicted by 12 than carried by six." This attitude, coupled with the de facto law in Texas that it is legal to shoot anyone who even attempts to forcibly enter your home, especially at night, may have something to do with the fact that nighttime residential burglaries are almost unheard of here. I don't know the crime statistics, but I can remember hearing of only one such in my whole life, and the victim was a decrepit 80-year-old woman who lived alone.

Don Beeth
Friendswood, TX

Thanks for the gripping article –more than enough impetus to read Joyce Malcolm's book.

I was a criminal investigator for the U.S. Air Force in England from 1978 to '84 and developed a number of friends within the various constabularies I dealt with. I was frequently surprised at the paternalism demonstrated by policemen at all levels, constables to chief superintendents. Many had the attitude that the common Englishman with a firearm was someone to mistrust and the police had all the right answers –especially when it came to protecting the citizenry. I put up with all the good-natured (and some not so good-natured) jibes about "the Wild West" and the American "gun nut" culture so popular at that time in the liberal British press.

All of this was occurring at the same time as the Brixton riots and other serious social problems that were more and more often leading to street violence. Those same constables were privately asking me for U.S.-style police night sticks (much bigger than the Bobby's truncheon), small police- issue pepper sprays, and other nonlethal police equipment that even then was illegal in England.

I even frequently arranged for British police officers to receive small arms training available on our military bases at the time.

Almost 20 years later those same, and for the most part retired, officers have a vastly different opinion about the value of an armed citizenry than they expressed a generation ago. I would also suspect there are a lot of people in Britain who are equally fed up with the state's failure to defend them. v

Jim Hogue
Plano, TX

Joyce Malcolm replies: Tim Lambert, Jim Whitehead, and Mark Liveringhouse raise various questions about my statistics, and all believe strict gun controls produce lower levels of violent crime. Lambert insists any decrease in violent crime in England is attributable to strict gun control. To Whitehead, giving people the right to be armed is the road not only to crime but to anarchy. Liveringhouse, doubting all statistics, maintains nonviolent crime may be worse in England, but the violent crime rate is "much lower than it is in the United States." If guns deterred violence, he argues, the reverse would be true.v

Statistics first. In answer to Lambert, there are two different sets of official English crime figures –the British Crime Survey figures, which Lambert cites, and the annual, and sometimes more frequent, figures produced by Scotland Yard.

For the most recent rates, those since the 1997 handgun ban, I have depended on Scotland Yard's figures. These indicate that from 1997 through 2001 violent crime as a whole more than doubled. There are good reasons to credit the police figures. They are not likely to exaggerate the rates of the most serious crimes and have been corroborated by independent studies. The police found not only a 53 percent increase in armed robbery between April and November 2001 –a statistic Whitehead dismisses as "almost certainly a random fluctuation" –but also that murders with a firearm rose by 87 percent during the same period. In fact, in the three years from 1998 to 2001, firearm-related homicides increased by 49 percent. This trend is supported by a Kings College, London, study that found handgun crime rose by 40 percent in the two years after the handgun ban.

If all this constitutes gun control's success in reducing gun crime, one wonders what these men would regard as failure. As for violent crime generally, a U.N. survey of crime in 18 industrialized countries, including America, found people in England and Wales experience more crime per head than people in the other 17 countries and also have the worst record for "very serious" offenses.

Now for self-defense. Whitehead is correct that government has a responsibility to keep order. But that is not the same as giving it a monopoly over the individual's right to protect himself by depriving him of all credible means of protection. As a member of the British House of Commons argued, "one has to remember that there are many places where society cannot get, or cannot get there in time. On those occasions a man has to defend himself and those whom he is escorting. It is not very much consolation that society will come forward a great deal later, pick up the bits, and punish the violent offender." The English case shows that public safety is not enhanced by depriving people of their right to personal safety.

True Patriots

Reading Jacob Sullum's objective and measured "Pride and Prejudice" (November), contrasting Bill Bennett's and Noam Chomsky's views on patriotism, I realized that neither seems to have grasped the greater truth.

This country's bedrock survival policy for 200 or so years has been the "balance of power," preventing any one hegemonic power from dominating a major segment of our planet. This policy found its most serious challenge in the Cold War.

We beat the Soviets not only by outproducing, outspending, and out-maneuvering them. We beat them by buying friends, bargaining with tyrants, bribing undesirables, and intimidating the weak. In dealing with the corrupt and greedy of the world, we simultaneously fell short of Bennett's shining, flawless ideal and offended Chomsky. Of course we made enemies –to eliminate a global threat.

Ronald M. Wade
Rockwall, TX

Jacob Sullum thinks "it is the deliberate targeting of civilians that is the sine qua non of terrorism." But my dictionary's only definition of terrorism is "the systematic use of terror, violence, and intimidation to achieve an end."

Even using Sullum's definition, it seems our government's policies in the Middle East, in Colombia, and in a very long list of past foreign interventions easily qualify as "systematic use of terror, violence, and intimidation to achieve an end." Don't mostly civilians suffer from these policies?

That Noam Chomsky's death figures for the Iraqi embargo or Afghan bombings are a "wild exaggeration" doesn't mean these government policies weren't terrorism. How many have to die? Weren't those civilians targeted?

I was disappointed Sullum let our government off so easy.

Carmen Yarrusso
Brookline, NH