Sat 15 Jan, 2011 07:54 am
SEVERE GUN CONTROLS
WILL SEEM LIKE WAR ON DRUGS
BLOOMBERG BUSINESS WEEK
Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) --
The atrocity committed last weekend in Tucson,
Arizona, by alleged perpetrator Jared Loughner has
predictably generated calls for new gun-control
laws in the U.S.
Some want bans on the extended-capacity
ammunition clips that allowed Loughner to fire
more than 30 shots from his Glock semi-automatic
pistol without reloading. Others want improved
background screening to prevent mentally
unstable individuals from purchasing guns.
Would these or other laws prevent incidents like
the Arizona shooting? Probably not and such laws,
along with existing gun controls, not only harm
responsible gun owners but may even increase violence.
Gun-control laws fall into two main categories.
Most in the U.S. are in and of themselves mild:
They license legal gun ownership for most people
in most instances, while imposing modest costs on
legitimate gun owners. Examples include criminal-
background checks, waiting periods to purchase a gun,
minimum purchase ages, and the like.
These kinds of laws, however, are unlikely to
deter someone like Loughner, who appears to
have contemplated and planned his attack for a
long time. The reason is simple: These laws are
Loopholes for Lunatics
Consider, for example, a ban on extended-
capacity ammunition clips. If these had been
unavailable, Loughner could still have carried out
his attack with a 10-round magazine, and he might
have aimed more carefully knowing he had less
Loughner could have brought several guns,
allowing him to continue firing without interruption.
Loughner could have purchased extended-ammo
clips that were sold before a ban took effect
(especially since the prospect of bans stimulates
sales in advance of implementation), or he could
have bought a black- market clip, perhaps just by
placing a classified advertisement.
Similar difficulties confront the use of background
checks designed to prevent the mentally unstable
from buying guns. The U.S. already has such a system,
but it wouldn’t have stopped Loughner from
buying a gun because it only applies when a court
has decreed a person to be mentally unfit, which
hadn’t occurred in Loughner’s case.
Even a broader definition of mentally unfit
probably wouldn’t deter someone determined to
commit violence. No matter how broad the definition,
this approach does nothing to close the multiple
avenues whereby anyone with sufficient cash can
purchase a gun and ammunition.
Gun controls like those being proposed may, on
occasion, prevent horrific events like the Tucson
shooting or at least reduce their harm, but in all
likelihood only rarely. Avoiding a few such
incidents is surely better than avoiding none, so
these controls would make sense if they had no
negatives of their own, but gun controls, even
mild ones, do have adverse consequences.
At a minimum, these laws impose costs on people
who own and use guns without harming others,
whether for hunting, collecting, target practice,
self-defense, or just peace of mind. The
inconvenience imposed by bans on extended-
ammunition magazines or waiting periods to buy a
gun might seem trivial compared with the deaths
and injuries that occur when someone like
Loughner goes on a rampage, and if the only
negative from these controls were such
inconveniences, society might reasonably accept
that cost, assuming these controls prevent some
acts of violence, but mild controls don’t always
stay mild; more often, they evolve into severe
limits on guns, bordering on outright prohibition
and this isn’t just slippery-slope speculation;
a century ago most countries had few gun
controls, yet today many have virtual bans on
private ownership. Some of these countries
(the U.K. and Japan) have low violence rates that
might seem to justify harsh controls, yet others
experience substantial or extreme violence (Brazil
More broadly, comparisons between states and
countries --as well as social-science research --
provide no consistent support for the claim that
gun controls lower violence.
Stringent controls and prohibition, moreover,
don’t eliminate guns any more than drug
prohibition stops drug trafficking and use.
Prohibition might deter some potential gun
owners, but mainly those who would own and use
Folly of Prohibition
Thus the classic slogan -- when guns are outlawed,
only outlaws will have guns -- isn’t only a word play;
it is a fundamental insight into the folly of gun
prohibition. Such an approach means the bad guys
are well-armed while law-abiding citizens are not.
Even if severe controls or prohibition had
prevented Loughner from obtaining a gun, he
might have still carried out a violent attack.
Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing,
which killed 168 people, illustrates perfectly that
a determined lunatic has multiple ways to inflict harm.
Beyond being ineffective, gun prohibition might
even increase violence by creating a large black
market in guns. So if gun laws follow the path of
drug laws, we can expect more violence under
gun prohibition than in a society with limited or no controls.
The sad reality is that every society has a few
people whose mental instabilities cause serious
harm to others. This is tragic, but it doesn’t
justify ineffective and possibly counter-
productive attempts to prevent such harm.
(Jeffrey Miron, author of “Libertarianism, From
A to Z,” is an economist at Harvard University and
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. The opinions
expressed are his own.)