Gun Restrictions Have Always Bred Defiance, Black Markets

For reasons of their own, most people, in many countries, defy anti-gun laws


Times anti-gun editorial from 1905
Public Domain

I doubt I ever would have gone to the black market to purchase an illegal assault weapon if it wasn't for New York's annoyingly restrictive gun control laws. Wait. Let me back up a bit. New York State passed the Sullivan Act back in 1911. The law required people to get a government permit to own or carry any weapon small enough to be concealed—handguns, in particular. Issuing the permit would be a matter of official discretion, which is a policy continued to the present day.

The motivation for passing the law was no secret. During debates leading to the ultimate passage of the gun control law, The New York Times editorialized:

Such a measure would prove corrective and salutary in a city filled with immigrants and evil communications, floating from the shores of Italy and Austria-Hungary. New York police reports frequently testify to the fact that the Italian and other south Continental gentry here are acquainted with the pocket pistol, and while drunk or merrymaking will use it quite as handily as the stiletto, and with more deadly effect. It is hoped that this treacherous and distinctly outlandish mode of settling disputes may not spread to corrupt the native good manners of the community.

Well … guilty as charged. My family (I'm descended from immigrants originating in those suspect regions of Europe) has long had a habit of owning, and often carrying, weapons in and around New York City.

But we got to this country—most of my ancestors, anyway—just about the time the Sullivan Act became law. Which means all that carrying and brandishing of weapons took place despite the law, because nobody in my family bothered to get a pistol permit through several generations of residency in New York City.

Until me.

There are downsides to owning guns illegally. The big one, from my perspective, was that I couldn't go shooting at a range. The folks at the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range probably had as dim a view of permits and registration as I do, but they weren't about to risk their own freedom just to let me put a few holes in paper targets.

So I applied for a permit to purchase a .45-caliber Model 1911 and keep it at home.

The sales clerk at the gun shop was helpful—he should have been. I paid a premium to have my paperwork submitted to the proper city paper-pushers by experts retained by the store. Although the term was never used, I assumed that meant the store made use of New York City's peculiar breed of middlemen known as "expediters" to get the permit processed. Eternally controversial, expediters are known for their detailed knowledge of the city's byzantine regulatory procedures, their working relationships with bureaucrats, and their willingness to grease palms to make sure clients are given favorable consideration.

Even so, I waited. And I waited. And I finally blew my stack.

As the saying goes, I knew a guy who knew a guy. It took an email, a phone call, and a friendly meeting, and for less than 300 bucks, I was the proud owner of a semi-automatic variant of an AK-47—the famed assault rifle of the old Soviet bloc and of guerrilla fighters everywhere. It was legal in much of the United States, but strictly verboten in New York City.

And it cost me about a third of the ultimate price of that legal pistol.

As it turned out, the illicit rifle was not only cheaper and easier to obtain than the legal pistol, but the seller was much more pleasant to deal with than the cops administering the official process. The police officers at New York City's One Police Plaza, once I actually got into the place, were flat-out rude. They weren't abusive as much as surly in a special bureaucratic way, backed up by the implied threat that they could punish back-talk with a simple nudge of your papers into the trash can. I bit my tongue, but everybody has their own limit. A "customer" at an adjoining desk in the cramped warren stood up, announced loudly that rather than put up with this treatment he'd buy his gun on the street, then stalked from the room.

Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. I'll never know if that guy went to the black market. But plenty of New Yorkers have chosen to own guns outside the official system. In a city that, as I write, has roughly 37,000 licensed handgun owners and about 21,000 rifle and shotgun licenses, the running guesstimate of illegal firearms stands at two million, give or take a bit. That's the number the U.S. Department of Justice has used in its official publications in recent years.

Basically, far more guns are owned illegally within the boundaries of New York City than are held legally. Government officials wanted tight restrictions on firearms, and they got them—but that doesn't seem to have deterred many people from owning the things.

New York City officials blame states with looser laws for the flow of illicit guns. Mayor Bloomberg has famously waged a campaign of "straw-man" purchases against gun shops in states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia to which firearms found in New York City have been traced. The mayor's proxies purchased guns in their own names, illegally intended for transfer to other people. Lawsuits followed against the stores where the purchases were permitted. That raises interesting questions about why mere citizens who make such purchases get sent to prison, while government agents acting far outside their jurisdiction get a free pass.

But if guns are currently coming from legal dealers in more permissive jurisdictions, there's nothing to say that's the only possible source, or that imposing tighter laws elsewhere will cut off the flow. After all, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other drugs find their way to New York City in generous quantities in the absence of any legal source within the United States—or outside it, for that matter.

In fact, New York City's situation with guns is mirrored in Europe, where countries with tight restrictions also find themselves awash in illegal firearms without any clear parallels for the relatively liberal laws of Virginia or South Carolina to blame. According to the Small Arms Survey (PDF) at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland:

Contrary to widely-accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace in most European states. It may appear to some outside observers—especially Americans—that Europeans have blindly surrendered their gun rights (Heston, 2002). The reality is that the citizens of most European countries are better armed than they realize. …

Regulations tightly control gun ownership in only a few European countries like the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom. In much of the rest of the continent, public officials readily admit that unlicensed owners and unregistered guns greatly outnumber legal ones. …

"Greatly outnumber?" Just how greatly?

Well, says the Small Arms Survey, a research outfit established by the Swiss government, the United Kingdom, with just shy of 1.8 million legal firearms, has about four million illegal guns. Belgium, with about 458,000 legal firearms, has roughly two million illegal guns. In Germany, the number is 7.2 million legal guns and between 17 and 20 million off-the-books examples of things that go "bang" (a figure with which the German Police Union very publicly agrees). France, says the Survey, has 15-17 million unlawful firearms in a nation where 2.8 million weapons are held in compliance with the law.

Registered guns vs. unregistered guns
Small Arms Survey

Even those numbers may understate the case. While the 2003 Small Arms Survey report put the number of legal guns in Greece at 805,000 and illegal guns at 350,000, just two years later, the Greek government itself nudged those figures up, just a tad, to one million legal guns and 1.5 million illegal ones.

So New Yorkers aren't alone in being armed to the teeth outside the law.

It's not that governments haven't tried to grab those guns. One government after another has implemented schemes for registration, licensing, and even confiscation. But those programs have met with … less than universal respect.

In a white paper on the results of gun control efforts around the world, Gun Control and the Reduction of the Number of Arms, Franz Csaszar, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, Austria, wrote, "non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event."

Dr. Csaszar estimates compliance with Australia's 1996 ban on self-loading rifles and pump-action shotguns at 20 percent.

And even that underwhelming estimate gives the authorities the benefit of the doubt. Three years after Australia's controversial ban was implemented, when 643,000 weapons had been surrendered, Inspector John McCoomb, the head of the state of Queensland's Weapons Licensing Branch, told The Sunday Mail, "About 800,000 (semi-automatic and automatic) SKK and SKS weapons came in from China back in the 1980s as part of a trade deal between the Australian and Chinese governments. And it was estimated that there were 1.2 million semi-automatic Ruger 10/22s in the country. That's about 2 million firearms of just two types in the country."

Do the math. Two million illegal firearms of just two types, and only 643,000 guns of all types were surrendered …

The Australian Shooters Journal did its own math in a 1997 article on the "gun buyback." Researchers for the publication pointed out that the Australian government's own low-ball, pre-ban estimate of the number of prohibited weapons in the country yielded a compliance rate of 19 percent.

But maybe success is in the eye of the beholder. After the expected mountains of surrendered weapons failed to manifest themselves, then-Australian Attorney General Darryl Williams's office revised its estimate of total firearms in the country to a number lower than its pre-ban estimate of prohibited firearms, and declared victory.

Inspector McCoomb, like the Australian Shooters Journal, concluded the ban "has failed."

The situation in other countries was much the same. Canada pulled a similar numerical sleight of hand when the government responded to widespread resistance to a new firearms registration law by dropping its estimate of the number of gun owners from 3.3 million in 1998 to 2.4 million in 2001. Gary Mauser, a firearms policy expert affiliated with the Fraser Institute, an independent research organization with offices in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, countered with his own estimate that the actual number of gun owners stood at 4.5 million through those years. They weren't disappearing from the Great White North; they just weren't complying with the registration law.

Again and again, governments have encountered massive resistance to their efforts to identify gun owners and track gun ownership.

Csaszar points out that, after Austria prohibited pump-action shotguns in 1995, only 10,557 of the estimated 60,000 such guns in private hands were surrendered or registered.

And when Germany imposed gun registration in 1972, he says, owners complied by filing the appropriate paperwork on 3.2 million firearms. This was a bit awkward, since estimates of civilian stocks were in the 17-20 million range.

The low level of compliance with registration laws gives a good idea of where many of the world's illegal guns come from, but it isn't the whole story. If people are keeping firearms in defiance of their governments' wishes, they obviously want to own guns no matter what the powers-that-be intend. And as has proven true in so many cases, demand usually provides its own supply.

Small Arms Survey reports that, for Europe, illegal guns tend to flow from East to West. In need of the hard cash that black market dealings can provide, and suspicious of state power after decades of heavy-handed rule, Eastern Europe has become a major source for manufacturing and distributing illegal weapons—and of overall defiance of gun restrictions.

In central and eastern Europe, quiet resistance to over 40 years of socialist rule created a pervasive culture of non-cooperation with public authorities. When communism collapsed, leaving power to be inherited by weak and disorganized democratic regimes, innumerable opportunities arose for people to acquire and hide personal guns. It is no wonder that in much of the region registered guns appear to be the exception.

If skepticism toward the wisdom of disarming at the request of the current pack of politicians drives the supply side of the equation in the East, it may also explain demand in the West. After all, within living memory, most of Europe has been under the control of one nasty regime or another, whether home-grown or imposed from outside. Communist governments were the last to fall, but as recently as the early 1970s, Greece, Portugal and Spain suffered under dictatorships.

Whether or not that's the explanation for mass resistance to gun laws in Europe, there's no doubt that the black market is thriving. Drawing from Hungarian media reports, World Press Review reported in July 2001 that the Odessa mafia had shipped 13,000 tons of guns to Croatia and Bosnia. That impressive shipment included 30,000 Kalashnikovs, 400 remote-controlled ground missiles, 50 launching stands, and 10,000 antitank missiles.

A black market that can supply embargoed armies with missiles has no difficulty feeding the civilian appetite for pistols and rifles.

Underground suppliers aren't always so large-scale, of course. The BBC reported in 2007 on the conviction of two British soldiers in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment for smuggling guns out of Iraq for sale in Europe. Their operation was apparently sufficiently sophisticated that the smugglers prepared a catalog that included photos and descriptions of available wares.

In an example of the convergence of underground markets, one of the soldiers admitted during his court martial to accepting cocaine as payment for the guns. He then sold the drugs for additional profit.

Such connections can be found elsewhere in the world, too. Flush with money made satisfying Americans' appetite for intoxicants out of favor with U.S. government officials, Mexico's drug gangs have eagerly armed themselves, the better to squabble with one another—and to battle the police and even the army. While popular mythology blames the flow of guns to Mexico on purchases in America's legal weapons markets (Mexico has tight restrictions on private firearms ownership, including outright bans on guns in calibers used by the military), the gangs have increasingly fielded grenades, rockets and machine guns—firepower unavailable in the average Texas gun shop.

But such weaponry is available from underground dealers. Says the Los Angeles Times:

These groups appear to be taking advantage of a robust global black market and porous borders, especially between Mexico and Guatemala. Some of the weapons are left over from the wars that the United States helped fight in Central America, U.S. officials said.

"There is an arms race between the cartels," said Alberto Islas, a security consultant who advises the Mexican government. "One group gets rocket-propelled grenades, the other has to have them."

That the black market in guns flows freely into the black market for drugs—or other illicit goods and services—should come as no surprise. Csaszar emphasizes that this convergence between illegal markets is to be expected.

[I]nterconnections between the black market in arms and other, more general black markets should be taken very seriously. Viewed from the side of the illegal arms buyers this integration of markets will happen only with a very tiny fraction, namely those individuals already involved in other criminal business. For the great majority it will remain an isolated breach of a gun law only. However, viewed at a general level from the provider side there can be no doubt of the worldwide integration of drugs and arms markets.

So, by imposing restrictions on one type of product, governments have driven people to the black market where all forbidden products and services are available, and likely increased the wealth and power of active sellers in that market.

If you were trying to enrich and empower the folks who thrive beyond the reaches of polite society, you couldn't come up with a better plan.

Hmmm … but those guns come from somewhere, right? Before black marketeers turn them into illicit commodities to be sold alongside cocaine and tax-free cigarettes, they have to be manufactured. So, what about putting tighter controls on the companies that make these killing machines and cutting off the supply?

Good luck on that.

In 2007, Suroosh Alvi, a co-founder of Vice magazine, pulled a few family strings in Pakistan to gain access to the turbulent Northwest Frontier Province. Specifically, he wanted to see the gun markets that are feeding a steady supply of arms to Afghanistan. More specifically, he wanted to see just how modern firearms were being cranked out in wholesale lots under the most primitive conditions imaginable. His opening comment in the resulting video documentary—"I've seen kids making guns with their bare hands in caves"—only barely overstates what he presents. Thousands of 9mm pistols, knock-off AK-47s, machine guns, and anything else you can imagine are manufactured there over wood fires with hand tools—and so is the ammunition to match.

Pakistan isn't alone. Danao, in the Philippines, has a thriving underground gun-manufacturing industry that is reputed to employ as much as 20 percent of the local population. Starting decades ago with crude revolvers, the "paltiks" turned out by the backyard gunsmiths of Danao now include working replicas of modern assault weapons manufactured with basic technology.

Just how do you shut down underground craftsman who don't seem to require much more than their skills, some scrap metal, and access to Third-World tools that barely begin to compare to the equipment in the garages of many Western suburbanites?

That's a rhetorical question. The evidence suggests that underground manufacturers will step up to meet any demand that arises.

But those are just foreigners who insist on swapping out their presidents and prime ministers for generalissimos every few decades! Isn't Europe where the Italian and Austro-Hungarian hoodlums The Gray Lady found chasing each other around with pocket pistols a century ago came from? What does their experience have to do with the way Americans respond to gun laws in a country with a (mostly) unbroken history of democratic government?

Well, maybe Americans have been corrupted by foreign fears and ideas smuggled here by the likes of my ancestors, but folks on this side of the Atlantic have proven no more submissive to firearms regulation than Australians and Germans.

The high water mark of American compliance with gun control laws may have come with Illinois's handgun registration law in the 1970s. About 25 percent of handgun owners actually complied, according to Don B. Kates, a criminologist and civil liberties attorney, writing in the December 1977 issue of Inquiry. After that, about 10 percent of "assault weapon" owners obeyed California's registration law, says David B. Kopel, research director for Colorado's Independence Institute, a free-market think-tank, and author of The Samurai, The Mountie, and The Cowboy, a book-length comparison of international firearms policies.

That one-in-10 estimate may have been generous. As the registration period came to a close in 1990, The New York Times reported "only about 7,000 weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in the state have been registered."

Maybe gun owners are getting more ornery as time goes on. Or perhaps they're just getting more distrustful of the authorities. In fact, American gun owners may have good reason to be skeptical of common assurances that registration records won't ever be used for anything more than tracking lost and stolen weapons. In New York City, the center of agitation for tighter U.S. gun laws, the registration system for long guns such as rifles and shotguns, established in 1967, was used in the 1990s to confiscate previously lawful semiautomatic rifles.

California state officials pulled a similar stunt, though with a shorter grace period. After the registration of so-called "assault weapons" subsequent to the passage of the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, Attorney General Dan Lungren reversed official position in 1997 to declare one of the rifles considered legal and subject to registration just a few years earlier—the SKS Sporter—to be illegal. Owners who had complied with the law were forced to surrender their weapons or transfer them out of state.

Whatever the motivation, Kopel found no more than one percent compliance with Denver's law requiring registration of semi-automatic weapons, as well as Boston's and Cleveland's bans on such guns.

Likewise, in New Jersey, said The New York Times in 1991, after the legislature passed a law banning "assault weapons," 947 people registered their rifles as sporting guns for target shooting, 888 rendered them inoperable, and four surrendered them to the police. That's out of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 firearms affected by the law. The Times concluded, a bit drily, "More than a year after New Jersey imposed the toughest assault-weapons law in the country, the law is proving difficult if not impossible to enforce."

Well … yes. As it turns out, no matter where you are in the world, when governments impose gun laws that are widely disliked by the people to whom they apply, people disobey those laws. And disobedience isn't just the stubborn reaction of a few holdouts or a sizeable minority—it seems, invariably—to be the policy favored by most of the people subject to the objectionable statute.

As with so many other areas of human life, gun ownership is effectively regulated only to the extent that gun owners and would-be owners are willing to comply with the proposed regulations. Try to stuff unwelcome restrictions down a target population's throat and … well …

Perhaps the best assessment comes from Professor James B. Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University. Summing up the prospects for banning handguns in his book, Can Gun Control Work?, he wrote:

Prohibiting possession would require disarming the citizenry; whether done quickly or over a long period, it would be a monumental challenge, fraught with danger. Millions of citizens would not surrender their handguns. If black market activity in connection with the drug laws is any indication, a decades-long "war on handguns" might resemble a low-grade civil war more than a law-enforcement initiative.

Low-grade civil war?

Hmmm. Maybe that AK-47 I bought was a wiser purchase than I anticipated.

I jest—I've never doubted the wisdom of that purchase.

But why are people so resistant to weapons regulations, of all the possible laws they could resist?

Well, the hundreds of millions of people happily rendering gun controls unenforceable around the world probably have a variety of reasons for doing so. But the near-universal resistance to such laws suggests some commonalities.

As mentioned earlier, even much of modern, democratic Europe was under dictatorial control relatively recently. A hypothetical 80-year-old retiree shuffling today around the house in which he was born in Potsdam would have lived under four governments without ever having called a moving van or packed a box. Two of those regimes (Hitler's Nazi state and the East German Communist government) would have been among the more evil governments to ever give a secret policeman a leather trench coat, and one (the Weimar republic) was chaotic and inept.

That retiree's contemporary in his family home in Marseille would have lived under the tottering Third Republic, the collaborationist Vichy regime, the Provisional Government, the unstable Fourth Republic, and the Fifth Republic.

And both of them would, today, be eyeing the rise of the yet-unproven European Union.

The past century has seen the emergence of the bloodiest regimes ever to exist on the planet. During the 20th Century, the People's Republic of China slaughtered over 76 million people, the Soviet Union murdered roughly 62 million, and Nazi Germany put another 21 million in the ground.

The Nazi regime rose out of a functioning—though deeply flawed—democracy, so even regular elections are an uncertain barrier to tyrannical rulers.

But even a perfectly stable democracy is no guarantee against the future. Not content to engage in mass murder within their own borders, totalitarian armies have exported mayhem to neighboring countries.

Those are only the headliners. According to R.J. Rummel, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii and author of Death by Government, autocratic regimes with a variety of ideologies, or no ideologies at all, shed blood around the world, raising the overall death toll inflicted by governments to 262 million over the course of the 20th Century.

Democratic regimes weren't nearly as bloodthirsty as their authoritarian counterparts, though they did commit atrocities—especially in their colonial holdings. They also had a nasty habit of being invaded and occupied by their jackbooted neighbors.

Given that track record, why would even the inhabitant of a stable democracy, who is perfectly happy with the current political set-up, have any confidence that the government perusing firearms registration records ten years down the road will bear any resemblance to the government gathering those records now?

Keeping a few unregistered guns may well look like an insurance policy against a future that could all too easily resemble the past.

The United States has been happily free of dictators, purges, and occupation, but it doesn't take a large dose of paranoia to look back over history and wonder if this one country is necessarily a permanent exception to the troubles that have engulfed the rest of the planet.

And even if America never proves to be Weimar Germany with weaker beer, or to have the border integrity of France's Third Republic, elected officials, like those in New York and California, do their reputations no favor when they violate promises that registration records will never be used to ease confiscation schemes.

That said, the underlying point of all of this evidence of extremely well-armed scofflaws around the world is this: the scofflaws' motivations don't matter; agreement with their reasoning doesn't matter; sharing or even respecting their values is entirely irrelevant. All that matters is that, from one country to the next, across barriers of language and culture, government officials in even the most benign, stable democracies that have attempted to disarm their subjects, or to limit the weapons available for legal ownership, or even to do no more than track gun owners and register guns, have run into overwhelming resistance. Mass defiance has crippled registration programs, hobbled confiscations schemes and made a mockery of licensing programs.

Given a choice between complying with restrictions on firearms ownership and defying the law, a clear majority of people in most jurisdictions have chosen rebellion. The tighter the law, the more obvious the rebellion, to the point that the vast majority of firearms in civilian hands in Europe are owned outside the law.

If history is any judge, that's probably a good thing. But even if you don't agree, this is a world in which civilians are well-armed, and intent on staying that way.