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02/20/2011

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Hyena

Assuming that criminals actually respond to such incentives. Since criminals generally have extremely high discount rates re punishment, I have my doubts.

Lucien

There is the question as to what would happen when people own guns illegally, but have a good-faith reason that they own them legally. Some states, namely New Jersey and Hawaii, have such arcane laws that one can be sentenced for illegal gun ownership, when one acted in complete good faith.

J.A.

Dear Mr Becker, although I agree with the general premise of your piece as well as Mr Posner's, I just don't think the increase in demand for illegal weapons, due to stricter legal gun ownership laws, would be harmful in itself. Those who'd be refused to own guns legally would have to turn to the illegal market, creating, therefore, a negative incentive to many law-abiding citizens. Still, if most of the demand for legal guns is from law-abiding citizens with no intention to engage in criminal activity, the transfered demand - of those who are not deterred by the negative incentive mentioned - would be non-harmful in the same proportion as that of legal weapons. However, it is explicitly ineffective, at most, and should not be attempted, for it would incur costs.

Handworn

I'd like citations for your statements that the great majority of guns are illegal and "Well-organized criminal gangs own the greatest number and have the most sophisticated types of guns. Indeed, drug dealer enterprises go far beyond guns to own explosives, rockets, and other weapons capable of large-scale killings." Both are commonly heard statements during discussions of guns, but no one has yet cited any solid evidence to my knowledge. It would be hard to come by even for the FBI or ATF, since criminals don't register their activities, their possessions, or even their status as criminals. If you can't come up with any citations, I hope you make that clear in an addendum on this blog.

What I do know is that I've never encountered any news item that suggests that criminals of any kind own or use rockets, or even machine guns. All one gets in public circulation is a pack of populist, emotionalistic myths which have become the subject of the "well, everybody knows that..." fallacy. Without a serious attempt by real thinkers to discover the actual situation behind the grandstanding and falsehoods attractive to the intuition, no improvement will be seen.

For example, about assault weapons. No such thing exists, outside the language of the Assault Weapons Ban bill back in '94. It's not a term used by the military, the police or those who know anything about firearms. The term "assault rifle" (as distinction from an assault weapon) does exist, but it doesn't mean a machine gun, or any necessarily modern or sophisticated type of weapon. It's a military term meaning a rifle that fires an intermediate-powered cartridge, as opposed to a battle rifle, which fires a high-powered one. A Venn Diagram of this would show partially overlapping circles. But do politicians or reporters care about inconvenient facts like this? Never in my experience.

Nor is the truth told about machine guns. Almost no one knows that they've been illegal in the U.S. since 1934, unless you have a special and hard-to-get federal license. Second, they'd be hard to get anyway; they start at the price of a good used car and go up from there. Third, there have been almost no serious improvements in the area of small arms (which hand-held machine guns count as) since the early part of the last century. So thinking that new, matte-black, all-metal weapons of the kind used in the Grand Theft Auto series of video games are any more deadly than the M1928 Thompson submachine gun is like thinking that you get more wholesome toast if it's made using a wood-veneered toaster.

I hope these two examples spark a desire in you to find out more of the truth about firearms.

Harold Helbock

"This would probably be a safer and better world if no civilians had any guns." Dr Becker this does not fit with the available data. I realize that Sen Schummer ignores the major study as "flawed" but there never was a scientific study that was not flawed; it is the nature of science. The best available data is " more guns less crime".

Justice Posner: I am sorry to hear that you don't like the original Constitution. I to am in favor of some changes. The thing I object to is judges making the changes without my having a say. Why do lawyers think they know so much. I find many of them rather narrow and often stupid. I think Rabbis would probably do a better job. Anyway, stick to your job: say what the law is, not what you think it should be. No offense intended.

Thinking Cap

I have a few criticisms of some of your facts. I am not disagreeing with you in total, however.

"Gun ownership is uncommon in suburbs like Scarsdale and Winnetka, while most households have guns in the inner cities of major cities, like Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles."

I have seen studies that suggest the exact opposite, that with greater affluence brings greater ownership of firearms. However, I think it can safely be said that the vast majority of guns in Winnetka are legally owned. On the other hand, the great majority of guns in Chicago are either technically illegal for not being registered or outright illegal, as the ones owned by felons are.

"It is not simply the immense number of guns that makes gun control so difficult, but also the fact that the great majority is illegal and not officially registered."

It should be noted that the vast majority of guns in the United States are not registered, but completely legal. Some cities (NYC, Chicago, D.C.) and several states coastal states (New York, California) have registration laws, but a majority of the gun ownership in the country falls outside of those laws. There is no federal gun registration law at all. In my mind, there are four types of gun ownership - legal and registered, legal and not required to be registered, owned for lawful purposes but illegally not registered (i.e. Chicago and D.C. residents before registration was allowed), and outright illegal ownership by criminals. The fact is that the majority of gun ownership falls into the first two completely legal categories and I am not going to worry myself with the third. It's the criminals that need the attention of law enforcement.

Cesar Ailson Barros

I've translate this text into Portuguese, can I post it on my blog, with appropriate references?

Jack

Definition of assault weapon

Note: there are differing definitions of 'assault weapon' that are listed at Assault weapon. This page refers to the usage in the United States under the previous and proposed assault weapon bans.

Assault weapon refers primarily (but not exclusively) to firearms that had been developed from earlier fully-automatic firearms into semi-automatic civilian-legal versions. Semi-automatic firearms, when fired, automatically extract the spent cartridge casing and load the next cartridge into the chamber, ready to fire again; they do not fire automatically like a machine gun, rather, only 1 round is fired with each trigger pull.

By former U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name (e.g., Colt AR-15, TEC-9, non-automatic AK-47s produced by three manufacturers, and Uzis) and other semi-automatic firearms because they possess a minimum set of features from the following list of features:
A semi-automatic Kalashnikov AKM rifle.
An Intratec TEC-DC9 with 32-round magazine; a semi-automatic pistol formerly classified as an Assault Weapon under Federal Law.

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

* Folding or telescoping stock
* Pistol grip
* Bayonet mount
* Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
* Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device which enables the launching or firing of rifle grenades)

Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

* Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
* Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
* Barrel shroud that can be used as a hand-hold
* Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
* A semi-automatic version of an automatic firearm

Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:

* Folding or telescoping stock
* Pistol grip
* Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
* Detachable magazine

The earlier term assault rifle refers to rifles that are capable of fully automatic fire. In contrast, the term "assault weapon" refers to weapons capable of semi-automatic fire that had those certain features, as listed above. The ban did not cover "assault rifles", but merely the new category of "assault weapons" which did not include automatic firearms of any type.

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Trent Rock

Great essay. The final paragraph sums it up pretty well. I totally agree.

Tom Grey

This would probably be a safer and better world if no civilians had any guns, aside from policemen...

This is almost silly, because the issue is policy, and laws.
Change the above to be:
"This would probably be a safer and better world if it was illegal that civilians had any guns, aside from policemen".

This becomes subject to data. Look at states where it more illegal, compared to those where it is less illegal.
Or countries. And note the trends.

In the UK, where for many years it was mostly illegal for civilians to have guns, gun crime and murders have been going up.
My conclusion is that making gun ownership less legal would INCREASE gun crime, based on the data.


The elephant in the room is that guns are more legal than drugs, and most murders are based on terrible laws making drugs illegal. Of course, those murders are so common as to no longer be news, like car accidents or swimming pool deaths.
I think more US children died in pools last year than thru guns.

NEH

From a statistical standpoint the question becomes, "How many weapons (guns in this case) used in violent criminal activity are legal (purchased in legally approved channels following the letter of the Law) as opposed to blackmarket weapons"? I think one will find that blackmarket weapons are by far the largest number used. So that raises the question, "How is this blackmarket being controlled"? Doesn't the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have control over these aspects of modern life? Clearly, with all of the gun crimes in the States due to blackmarket weapons, something is broken. Much like the control of illegal Drugs. Or perhaps we're not really serious about controlling these things or the blackmarkets and blackmarketeers.

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adam

Lawyer
-In good faith to those who own guns illegally for a good reason, they still need to have a license because under such circumstance the government can punish them for not following the law. Rules are rules. Its not like, light or harsh punishment that is involved.The law still applies to all. Either way they can have both goals- legal gun ownership and protection. Beside no one can predict if who among those gun owners have the capacity to do bad things in the future.

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Nice article, thanks for the information.

Steve Gordon

I think the world would be a safer place if all law abiding citizens had a gun at all times.

Jack

Steve: Could you back up your seemingly wild speculation with some sort of fact????? Might be difficult as the nations that do limit gun packing on their streets enjoy a gun slaughter and maiming rate a fifth that of our murderous nation, and NYC where guns are strictly limited is, by a fair margin, the safest of our mega-cities.

Christopher Graves

I want to challenge the view touched on by Professor Becker that the world would be better off without the private ownership of guns. What we are witnessing in Libya is testimony to the need for an armed citizenry as the Founders of the United States realized. The right to violent revolution is essential to deter tyranny. And for the right to revolution to have any teeth, there must be private ownership of firearms.

As for crime, nations such as Sweden and Switzerland have private gun ownership with very low crime rates. There is no necessary relationship between private gun ownership and crime. Rather, crime has to do with the type of people in an area who are more likely to choose to commit violent crime. We do want to keep guns out the hands of those who are apt to misuse them. We also need to be more careful who we allow into our country. We need to morally educate everyone but especially those who are already here who are prone to criminal behavior as well as punish them after they have chosen to violate the rights of other persons.

Jack

Chris: you've made a few .......... stretches here in the past but these? Whew!

"What we are witnessing in Libya is testimony to the need for an armed citizenry as the Founders of the United States realized."

A: Hand and sport guns against aerial attacks in a nukie nation???

"The right to violent revolution is essential to deter tyranny."

A: Since Ghandi and MLK, Egypt and others it appears non-violent approaches against heavily armed governments are doing much better violent attempts. Consider? What we and Iraqi's spent in that, still up for grabs nation, as compared to Egypt?

"There is no necessary relationship between private gun ownership and crime."

A: You'd have to rely on a few, very few, outliers to make THAT case! Virtually ALL of the country to country, city to city, data gives the lie to such claims. But! I am open to a case being brought.

"We do want to keep guns out the hands of those who are apt to misuse them."

A: Interesting. And what suggestions do you or the NRA have toward that end?

"We also need to be more careful who we allow into our country."

A: Oh? have you identified groups of newcomers who are more prone to criminal or gunsel activity than others of similar economic and educuational demographics?

"We need to morally educate everyone but especially those who are already here who are prone to criminal behavior as well as punish them after they have chosen to violate the rights of other persons."

A: "Morally educate?" I'm a BIG fan of equitable education and making the improvements already tested in pilot project schools, but do you have suggestions as to how to teach morals? As for punishment, you do understand we lock our fellow citizens up at higher rates than even those of Russia and some five times the rate of Canada, UK, and the EU. I'd hazard a guess that

A. We've about reached a limit of what percentage we can keep in prison.

B. That it's HIGHLY ineffective. Recent numbers indicate non-prison methods have far higher rates of correction.

In the case of guns being involved in "violating the rights of others" all too often that means yet one more gun death, perhaps a crippling or maiming and costly H/C bill typically paid by the public at large, and if the perp is caught and sentenced not only those significant costs but often welfare or other costs of supporting family members.

Assuming we are to remain on the armed camp course, perhaps revisit 1. More equitable education. 2. Dealing with massive unemployment rates in many urban and rural areas. 3. Mental health care access. 4. Something at least remotely rational to replace our utterly failed "drug war" and its related crime and gang building effects. And lastly? A "corrections" institution worthy of the name.


Steve (a different one)

@Tom Grey


Your post makes no sense. I think you either completely misunderstood the post or else didn't read it all the way. You're acting like Gary Becker is arguing that the more illegal guns are, the safer the world is. But that's exactly what Becker argues against. He initially sets this idea up as a strawman, but eventually tears it down in favor of his actual conclusion: making guns illegal doesn't actually increase safety; increasing punishments for illegal guns (probably) would increase safety.

Christopher Graves

Jack, putting aside your opening hit-and-run remark, here is a reply to the main points that you present in response to my post above.

Weapons are typically needed to overthrow a despotic government. Not only are pistols and shotguns more effective than rocks and knives, but automatic weapons can provide a counterweight to a state army's weaponry. The French Resistance and other such movements have proven to be a force to be dealt with by occupying forces or central governments.

Next, the case for so-called non-violent resistance is very uneven in application. Many people never offer this level of resistance due to fear of being imprisoned or killed, so tyranny is never challenged in many regimes today and throughout history. When unarmed people have demonstrated for liberty, they have not all met with success. Examples, include the Tienanmen Square protests in China, recent protests in Iran, 1968 Czechoslovakia, 1956 Hungary. Even MLK pointed out that peaceful protests can only be successful if the larger population of a nation and its leadership already are working from a largely sound moral basis with a relatively few blind spots.

Further on this point, social science research has found that pacifism and non-violence are the least effective ways to deal with aggression. Political scientist Robert Axelrod's theoretical and historical research have confirmed these findings. See his *Evolution of Cooperation* for an overview of his research based on game theory.

Next, you say that there are only a few exceptional nations or localities with high levels of gun ownership and low levels of violent crime. This is not true. There are a number of nations with similar levels of gun ownership as our own accompanied by much lower rates of violent crime. Even in the U.S., in jurisdictions where more stable people own guns at a higher rate, there is less crime. See economist John Lott's research on this issue in his *More Guns, Less Crime.*

And yes, I do think that we can and should look into groups and individuals who are more prone to misusing firearms and consider those findings in public policy. For starters, those who are convicted of violent crimes and those who have been treated for certain types of mental illness should be denied legal gun ownership.

On moral education, here is a link to an evaluation of various programs that teach character development. They find that the so-called "head" approach or more abstract discussions of ethics actually has the most success.

http://www.rucharacter.org/file/practitioners_518.pdf

I would add to formal moral training, the right kind of entertainment that cultivates more empathetic, respectful attitudes toward other persons as well as cultivating a more implicitly, unconsciously based attitude of emotional balance and intuitive judgement. Prime among this approach are the ethics of Aristotle and Plato. Not only should virtue ethics be explicitly taught, but virtue should be modeled continuously by a child or adolescent's parents, teachers, and role models (including the right kind of celebrities, musicians, and athletes), but also in the rhythm and tempo of music they and adults listen to and the implicit messages contained in movies and television shows. Entertainment should be presented to both give us delight and to teach us, as Aristotle observed. For this kind of reform, we need to change people's attitudes about what is acceptable to open oneself and one's children up to continuously.

Finally, in response to the points you raised, I am for punishment only as a last resort. What I have mentioned above are steps to be taken in order to head off punishment. As far as prison goes, that might be the only viable solution for some violent criminals or execution if they have committed murder under certain circumstances. But I am open to alternative forms of punishment that deters future violent crimes, compensates victims, and is retributive.

America is different

There is no half way gun ownership. Once disarmed people become a majority, guns will be banned, like they have been banned in most of Europe.

A more fundamental factor that is more along the spirit of the American constitution is perhaps that gun ownership acts as an ultimate backstop to tyranny. Minorities can be oppressed by majorities only to a certain point, before violence starts erupting at the most oppressed margin. In that sense, gun ownership plays the original constitutional function of being a reminder that there is an ultimate backstop to how much individuals can be enslaved to various causes, including the noble cause of serving the whole typically invoked by most tyrannies, tyranny of the majority included.

So, yes, I said it. I supported America’s founding notion that individuals have intrinsic rights beyond the will of the majority. So, progressives, you can now issue your Fatwa. When the majority wishes, Socrates drinks the hemlock and Jesus gets crucified.

Dave

I am european I agree totally with strict controls on guns, we have enough problems with knife crime, never mind guns as well, in what world can we still need the ability to kill ones neighbour in cold blood?

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