Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gun control, critical thinking and history

Let's say gun control advocates are right: guns kill people and more guns means more people getting killed. After all, this is not completely unreasonable, guns do kill things (including people) and we might surmise that the more there are, the more people will get killed. But let's assume the evidence is on the gun-control side of the debate. Does it then follow that we should trust the government to control guns?

Enter critical thinking. The part of critical thinking that I did not learn in school, college, from family or friends is that of incorporating motive into understanding the things that other people say. Henry Hazlitt says in the opening paragraph of his famous book Economics in One Lesson
"The inherent difficulties of [economics] would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine - the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for them plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible."
And remember that the government itself comprises a special interest (contrast public employees' retirement benefits with taxpayer interests, and so on).


- Special interests will, predictably, argue "plausibly and persistently" the case for policies which benefit themselves even at the expense of all other social interests

- The government itself, and its employees, comprise a special interest

With this in mind, let's go back to the question of whether gun control is a good idea, even if advocates of gun control are correct that more guns = more deaths. One of the foremost proponents of gun control is the government itself. State police agencies spend large amounts of money in buyback programs to "get guns off the street", a lot of money is spent on the ATF and similar agencies and taskforces whose job is to investigate "gun crimes", and so on.

The state has an interest in maintaining a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If it maintains such a monopoly, then its will cannot be opposed since it alone possesses the means to kill without consequence. Combined with a monopoly on decision making, the will of the government is nearly omnipotent. Together, these monopoly powers enable the government to maintain a system of unopposed property confiscation (taxation) with which to perpetually fund its dual monopolies on force and decision-making. A lot of you may find such a cynical view of government to be repulsive but is this emotion or reason? Does the government not have an interest in maintaining these monopoly powers? If so, on what evidence or reason do you base your argument?

Given that the state is a foremost proponent of gun control and given that the state has a vested interest in gun control (elimination of competition with its monopoly on force), we should view its arguments - whether delivered directly through officials or through political proxies - with a heavy dose of skepticism. In addition, we should view any proposal that attempts to solve the problem of "more weapons = more deaths"* by increasing government monopolization of the means of force (weapons) with skepticism.

Assuming gun control advocates are right, I don't have an alternative solution to the "more weapons = more deaths" problem, but I am skeptical that increased government control of weapons really results in less deaths. This does not mean I cannot be convinced on clear and persuasive evidence, but pointing to random statistics that show a correlation between this or that guns vs. deaths statistic doesn't make the case, in my view. Something approaching a hypothesis establishing cause and effect needs to be shown - I'm willing to grant that more weapons = more deaths for the sake of argument, but I need to see a rational hypothesis on why I should believe that more government monopolization of weapons = less deaths.

Now, for some history. We speak of "gun control" today, but that's only because firearms are the "state of the art" in personal combat and defense. In times past, it was swords, bows, knives and other personal combat weapons that the government sought to control. Some locales are more serious than others about controlling non-firearms weapons but, today, we largely regard such weapons with a measure of amusement more than anything. Not so 1500 years ago when - as discussed in this LRC article - Byzantine Emperor Justinian I imposed severe weapons controls:
It was January 13, 532 AD when the anger of Justinian’s subjects reached a fevered pitch in what is known as the Nika riots. When it was all over Justinian was still in power but some 30,000 who had opposed him were dead; leaving Justinian free to enforce his brand of law.

Among Justinian’s laws, is Title XIV, Concerning Arms, Eighty-Fifth New Constitution (P.313) in which we find the following:

Chapter I

"Therefore, desiring to prevent men from killing each other, We have thought it proper to decree that no private person shall engage in the manufacture of weapons, and that only those shall be authorized to do so who are employed in the public arsenals, or are called armorers; and also that manufacturers of arms should not sell them to any private individual…"

Chapter III

"Therefore, God directing Our thoughts, We decree by the present law that no private individual, or anyone else whosoever shall, in any province or city of Our Empire, have the right to make or sell arms, or deal in them in any way, but only such as are authorized to manufacture them can do so, and deposit them in Our armory…"

Chapter IV

"But in order that what has been forbidden by Us to private persons and all others may become clear, We have taken pains to enumerate in this law the different kinds of weapons whose manufacture is forbidden. Therefore We prohibit private individuals from either making or buying bows, arrows, double-edged swords, ordinary swords, weapons usually called hunting knives, those styled zabes, breast-plates, javelins, lances and spears of every shape whatever, arms called by the Isaurians monocopia, others called sitinnes, or missiles, shields, and helmets; for We do not permit anything of this kind to be manufactured, except by those who are appointed for that purpose in Our arsenals, and only small knives which no one uses in fighting shall be allowed to be made and sold by private persons…"
Sound familiar? Why does anyone need anything other than .22 rifles for target practice or sports competition? Or maybe farmers can have some .223s for rodent control. "... only small knives which no one uses in fighting shall be allowed to be made and sold by private persons." Only weapons which no one uses for fighting... Assault Weapons Ban. I find the prohibition on the private manufacture and sale of breastplates particularly striking in its resemblance to the regulations on the manufacture and sale of body-armor. How are breast-plates (or body armor) a danger to anyone? Why does the state have an interest in not only disarming us, but leaving us unable to protect ourselves - even by purely defensive means - from armed criminals (including itself)?

The state is always seeking to solidify its monopoly on force. When viewed through this lens, it is clear that gun control has nothing to do with saving lives, unless you accept the very dubious hypothesis that "government monopoly on guns = saving lives". The horrific stories of berserk individuals shooting up malls or places of employment with guns are truly heart-breaking, but does solidifying the state monopoly on force actuallyprevent or reduce the occurrence of such incidents while not increasing the occurrence of other incidents (such as police shootings of innocents, etc.)?

The question of whether gun control is a net benefit to society is a difficult one to answer and the gun control advocate had better do due diligence to demonstrate it. Just citing some random statistics that purport to show a correlation between availability of firearms and firearms-related deaths doesn't cut the mustard. You need to explain to us why we should look past the obvious self-interest of the government in monopolizing the means of force (weapons) and how exactly the long-term effects of gun control laws on all groups results in a reduction of the incidence of violence and/or death.

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